May 16th, 2007
By MATTHEW HICKLEY
In an age of talking CCTV cameras, electronic tagging and satellites monitoring our car journeys, it is perhaps the inevitable next step towards a Big Brother state.
The Home Office is working on a fleet of pilotless spy drones which will fly above our towns and cities, quietly recording our every move while watching for terrorists and criminals.
Ministers have confirmed that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are expected to play a part in the fight against crime and terror, gathering intelligence and watching suspects from thousands of feet above the ground.
UAVs are already widely used by the military around the world. American spy drones have even been fitted with missiles to create the first pilotless warplanes, successfully killing high-profile terrorist targets.
Now Britain's police forces and spy agencies are to get in on the act, launching their own drones into UK airspace.
Home Office Minister Tony McNulty acknowledged in a written parliamentary answer last night that his department's scientists were exploring the use of UAV technology for a 'range of policing and security applications.' Police have used airborne surveillance for years in the form of helicopters carrying conventional and heat-seeking cameras. In February this year officers in Birmingham drafted in a manned spyplane with electronic eavesdropping equipment to help hunt for terror suspects.
UAVs offer huge advantages in that they can circle a target for many hours without refuelling - and their small and relatively quiet engines make them far more discreet - and cheaper to operate - than a noisy helicopter.
MI5 could use small UAVs to watch a suspect's address for long periods or to track a car for miles up and down the country.
The technology is already tried and tested, but there are serious safety concerns. For all their successes, military UAVs are prone to crashes on take-off and landing and many have been lost over battlefields.
Mr McNulty stressed that public safety would be an 'over-riding concern' as the technology develops and use expands.