Pilots of new North Wales Police drone unit already hailed as ‘high-flying heroes’

North Wales Police drone unit

The Welsh coppers at the sticks have really hit the, er, air soaring. The recently formed North Wales Police drone unit has racked up a series of successful operations that has earned them plaudits from the region’s top law enforcement official as “high-flying heroes.” 

Though only launched in April, the North Wales Police drone unit has already intervened to resolve three search and rescue cases that authorities believe might have otherwise resulted in loss of life. The team was also credited with flying critical support missions that helped firefighters contain a massive mountain blaze in June. After being briefed on those and other aerial missions by the squad, North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Andy Dunbobbin hailed its members as “high-flying heroes,” and pledged to expand their numbers and range of activity.

Dunbobbin is reputed be an unabashed geek whose interest in tech sharpens further when studying its application to law enforcement and public safety work. The North Wales Police drone unit was formed under his watch by Chief Inspector Jon Aspinall, and includes five other officers. Welsh media describe both men having been impressed by the piloting they’ve witnessed, and the efficiency of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAV) in response to a variety of emergencies.

“They are incredibly versatile and essentially they have revolutionized policing,” Aspinall said in a story by the North Wales Pioneer. “It’s enabling us to do things we were not able to do before… The fact that (Dunbobbin) is keen on technology in general and drones in particular is music to our ears.”

North Wales Police drone unit flies over 350 missions in first three months of operation

The exploits of the Welsh crew have come fast and furious. In June its UAVs played a critical role directing firefighting helicopters to hotspots of the giant Llantysilio mountain blaze, resulting in its faster containment. They were then scrambled to find different two elderly men who’d gotten lost for prolonged periods, and who “didn’t stand a chance” if searching drones hadn’t found them. A third life was saved after a man fell down a slope into a quarry and was left stranded on an obscured ledge. All three men were found and geo-positioned so officers on the ground could race to and lead them to safety.

Those weren’t the only missions the UAV flew. The DJI Matrice 300 RTKs used by the North Wales Police drone unit racked up over 350 sorties in the first three months of operation alone, often using their thermal imaging and 200x zoom video to scour terrain for details foot patrols can miss. For now, those have mostly been deployed in ways qualifying as “drones for good,” though Aspinall says the craft are also assets in hard-core police enforcement as well.

“In addition to finding missing people, the drones are used for a range of different police work including catching criminals fleeing from vehicles or houses, or people who have been involved in domestic abuse and fled the scene,” he said. 

His boss Dunbobbin agrees, and promises there will be more of that activity on the way.

“The drones are incredibly effective and versatile, and I’ve had conversations with (Aspinall) about how the drone team can move forward,” Dunbobbin said. “The introduction of drones has made a significant difference and at least three lives have been saved already. That’s just priceless.”

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