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NPCC drone projects signal move away from 'piecemeal' approach

Stuart Lawless and Neil Sexton from the NPCC drones portfolio discuss the Eagle X strand of the BVLOS Pathway Programme.

Part of the NPCC drones portfolio, the Beyond Vision Line of Sight (BVLOS) Pathway Programme aims to align the use of drones across UK policing, and to take all forces from the current VLOS operations to BVLOS. 

The programme comprises six strands: Eagle X, Centre of Excellence, NPAS uncrewed aircraft feasibility project, Operations, Safety and Regulation, People and Engagement.

As a member of the NPCC drones team, overseeing this programme is a key part of Stuart Lawless's job. The Met officer, who has spent the last seven years in police air support, started working with the drones team last summer.

Neil Sexton, one of a small team of consultants drafted in to help implement a strategy for the police use of drones across the UK, started as the programme’s Centre of Excellence Lead five months ago.

A helicopter pilot by trade, Neil was a military officer in the army for 36 years and has been its head of aviation. 

Understanding the need for the BVLOS Pathway Programme requires a look back at how UK policing’s use of drones has evolved over the years.

Neil explains: “If you look back over the last decade it varies dramatically across the 48 forces…we think there’s about 35 of those who have been, or who are now, using drones in some form, and about 400 drones. And that started in a couple of forces around eight/nine years ago…”

While those individuals who “saw the potential [and] persuaded their hierarchy to acquire drones in one way or another” deserve credit, there are limitations to this approach.

“There hasn’t been any real standardisation across the forces…so what you have seen is some forces develop at pace a really good capability, and others hardly started, and a few not even started at all.

“One of the really big benefits of this NPCC BVLOS Pathway Programme…is that we’re going to help the smaller forces and those that have not yet really got involved with drones, very rapidly catch up with some of those who are eight years ahead.”

Eagle X

Stuart describes this strand of the programme as an “ambitious project that really focuses on pushing boundaries of technology and innovation to enhance public safety drone operations”.

What does this mean? Essentially, Eagle X is about developing world leading capabilities for forces. A “number of different projects” are being set up to service that aim.

Stuart expands on a couple of these. Firstly, there’s the Drone as First Responder (DFR) blueprint work with Norfolk Constabulary.

The concept of a DFR involves having drones placed at strategic locations across a given environment. When a member of the public phones 999 for an ongoing incident, the call will be passed to the drone operator who after a review will determine whether they can deploy a drone.

That drone, Stuart says, could be there in two/three minutes depending on the circumstances. Oftentimes, it will be on the scene quicker than operational police.

“Crucially that is your eyes in the sky, so you’ll get significant benefit from the situational awareness that that drone will provide. The other element that that DFR provides is that really critical information to officers; not only police officers, but first responders to ensure that we’re sending the right resources.”

The DFR will also be able to identify, and potentially even follow, a suspect as they leave the location. 

Work has begun to consult with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and develop the concept of operations. Stuart anticipates flight trials will commence in April 2024.

The second project centres around trial BVLOS operations in non-segregated airspace. Thames Valley Police and Hampshire Constabulary will be involved with this work.

Stuart explains that policing currently has to operate in a segregated airspace section to “demonstrate some of the overarching safety objectives that the regulator has”.

The challenge is to convince the CAA of policing’s ability to safely fly in non-segregated airspace.

“We need industry and academia to support us in developing technology that enables us to detect and avoid other assets in the air…so that we can operate safety in non-segregated airspace and therefore get the authority from the regulator to operate there…”

Neil says the aim of Eagle X is to move away from the “piecemeal” approach that has defined policing’s use of drones to date.

“The use of drones by UK police forces has been organic for the last seven/eight years or so, and you’ve had a lot of people putting a lot of effort into developing capabilities, but it’s in a very piecemeal fashion.

“What Eagle X does is it allows all of those police forces to work through the NPCC drones portfolio in a consolidated fashion, and it allows those on the outside – like academia and the many industries that are growing up around drones – to have a single point of focus and contact. So it’s going to be a much more efficient way of creating those partnerships.”


Let's start with those linked to increased drone use within UK policing. Stuart says this would give officers greater support "in their live investigations". 

"So we see at the moment a lot of incidents receive a traditional police helicopter service, but actually with the police use of drones we’ll see that number significantly increase.

"And as a result of that we anticipate a significant increase in outcomes, because we’re going to get a rapid service available to the frontline where we can get some highly capable technology…”

As for the BVLOS Pathway Programme itself, Neil said: "A really helpful phrase that capture the way that the programme is going to benefit police forces, is we’re going to put in place a national strategy…that includes a national Authorised Professional Practice, national standards and so on, but the delivery of operational effect by drones…is very much done locally.

“We’re putting a framework in place with all of the systems around equipment and training and keeping the pilots up to speed professionally and so on…all of that will be there for everyone, and they can choose how they want to deliver in a local fashion."

Stuart says that work on the APP for police use of drones is "just about to kick-start" with the College of Policing.

All in all there are four phases to this programme, starting with alignment.

He says this stage is "about setting the foundations for police drone operations…so we have a really solid foundation to start excelling in the BVLOS capability". 

"It’s fair to say we’re very much in the middle of that alignment phase at the moment…I suspect that’s probably going to take us through until end of 2024/2025 period."

When asked what the final phase looks like, Stuart said: "That is where police forces at a local level are delivering routine, BVLOS capabilities that meets the needs of their local communities to ensure that they reduce crime and keep [the] public safe at a local level with the support of national strategy.”

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