On Thursday last week, I read that an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) had been recently used by the UK's Merseyside Police in the tracking and arrest of two suspected car thieves (BBC News:'Merseyside police drone tracks car theft suspects').
A quick Google search revealed some additional details in the Liverpool Echo ('Merseyside police make UK's first ever flying drone arrest'), specifically that the UAV had been used in thick fog.
I was really surprised when I read this, because this type of UAV is remotely-piloted, requiring line-of-sight operation, and does not have autonomous 'see and avoid' capabilities (unlike some more sophisticated autonomous military UAVs). So how could it be remotely-piloted safely in poor visibility conditions and in an urban environment?
I was struggling to reconcile this with the fact that the UK Civil Aviation Authority is carefully researching the integration of UAVs into civil airspace, and there are still a number of safety issues to be addressed. I had even discussed some of these, urban environments in particular, in the blog post 'Police Drone' in May 2007 when the media had been reporting the Merseyside Police's UAV trials (BBC News: 'Pilotless Police Drone Takes Off').
However, things began to make more sense when I read about more recent developments of the story, which were reported earlier this week (BBC News: 'Unlicensed Merseyside Police drone grounded' and Guardian: 'Eye in the sky arrest could land Police in the dock'). These reveal that the UAV was being flown by Merseyside Police without a CAA license, and this breach of regulations could lead to prosecution.
So Merseyside Police could be involved in a different type of UAV trial soon…