Drones, Fight or Flight by Laurence Dodds

Drones. Cause of chaos for airline passengers, infringers of privacy, a noisy and nosey nuisance in the eyes of the public. In the security industry however, these are the answer to many existing problems. TPSO asked security expert Laurence Dodds, to tell us about the security applications

With all the Drone hype and vast array of bolt on features along with the innovative capabilities available, it is not surprising then that drones have peaked some interest within the security industry.

Some of the more common service areas offering great potential for security companies may lay in logistical growth, property inspections and security patrols. The question is, do they offer any real alternatives to security services? Having to physically patrol a large facility such as a system of warehouses or vacant office buildings has some limitations when compared with Unmanned Arial Systems (UAS).

Drones offer faster unobstructed surveillance, a birds-eye-view of normally inaccessible areas suggesting a very affordable, interesting option and solution to boundaries, obstacles and safety. Where security personnel may be confined to patrolling on the ground with limited vision, a drone can survey a much greater area in a shorter time period. A drone can be autonomous and can spot potential anomalies where a security officer is unable to see from their position. Moreover, being able to cover more ground in a shorter time suggests that the number of patrols can be increased, offering the client a greater degree of protection and a visible deterrent to would be trespassers. 

From a CCTV operator’s perspective, there is the added advantage of targeting a specific area of interest, such as open windows, roof top entry points and obscured access routes on the fly. The freedom available to traverse normally inaccessible areas that fixed CCTV cameras may be limited to, is a tantalising prospect. An eye in the sky (UAS) further negates the possibility of endangerment to Security officers. Portability and lower long-term overheads which could also be reduced.

One of the more interesting uses of drones in the security industry was found with a company that actively use drones to patrol remote building perimeters where traversing an estate was difficult or treacherous on foot. Obstacles normally hindering access or a speedy resolution become insignificant. Site security surveys become much more rapidly executed and more detailed. Night vision and thermal imaging added another layer of detection and diversity where an aerial reconnaissance patrol negated ground-based security vulnerability.

A branch of the French police has been actively trialling tethered drones at large public events. Specifically crowd management has been their primary focus. Battery life normally dictates how long a drone may be airborne, in this case however, battery life is redundant. Drones were airborne for several hours or more. Power to the drone is supplied through the tether (high tension cable). Using a tethered system means safety concerns, such as drones falling out of the sky or going rogue are greatly reduced. This technology aided the team to monitor access, exits, pinch points, the flow of people and traffic.  If the drone should malfunction, it would fall within the confines of a ‘safe zone’.

With such interesting possibilities on offer, it is surprising then, with all the buzz, that a lot more security companies are not taking up the gauntlet.  Although they offer a tantalising prospect, the tried-and-tested, feet on the ground method has always been a reliable service. A small number of security firms are using drones along with manned security, but this is an overhead that needs to prove itself.

There are already reports in the media of drones being used for more negative pursuits provoking a mixed reaction to this Pandora’s box technology. The enormity of features and technologies on offer mean that no matter what the environment, there is a range of drones available to suit. For as little as £25 and only three inches across, with a 720P camera, 70M range and battery life 10 minutes. A lone security officer in a remote location could quickly deploy his drone to look in the windows of a five-storey building, or around a corner without exposing themselves to danger. At the higher end bracket, a larger drone could pinpoint hidden adversaries in the dark with either thermal or night vision. There is of course, the added cost of training staff to be proficient with UAS, as well as more specialised staff involved in the task management.

According to Elaine Whyte at PwC, by 2030 the GDP uplift across industries is projected to be £8.6bn in construction & manufacturing, £11.4bn in the public sector and £7.7bn in retail trade and services. The impact on jobs could be substantial. Drones or UAS may have a dramatic impact on positions within the security sector, but the gains in cost savings juxtaposed with the new and advanced features will revolutionize how we deal with potential threats. The continued demand will drive drone innovation, leading to greater stealth, flight time and more enhanced features.

Such technologies will almost certainly come with new job opportunities.  It is unfortunate that strides in drone manufacturing and features is a double-edged sword as they are available to anyone for whatever reason.

There is now more concern for anti-drone defence systems. Unlike the modular drone, defence systems are considerably more expensive. Most drone tracking systems monitor radio frequencies in order to detect a drone. A frequency jammer can then be used to bring the drone down. The starting costs can be from £1500 upwards. Regulation is very much primal, and is still in its infancy, and the law is somewhat grey when it comes to commercial use.

For commercial use, most will have to comply with the CAA’s regulations. Obtaining the PfCO (Drone license) means taking part in a course from a CAA approved trainer along with a practical and theory test.  Recently the ISO has released a draft set of global standards to enhance public safety and foster greater accountability among pilots. Although these ISO standards are not enforceable, they will be the future recognised standards like other ISO’s that complement the industries compliance status symbols.

Whilst investment costs are incredibly low, generally there does not appear to be a great deal of interest in drones within the security industry in the UK at the moment.  This could be due to the confinement of client properties such as offices, warehouse’s and service yards. Where properties are far more condensed and in highly populated areas, the use of even a small drone may be restrictive in terms of space and regulation.

Drones have not yet proven themselves to be a viable alternative or even a complemented asset yet. The term ‘Drone’ is more regarded as a toy than tool by most. There is no doubt that drone technologies offer great potential, but are more likely viewed as a gimmick than a cheap, viable alternative.  The gauntlet falling to niche markets such as roof maintenance inspections, agricultural, container yards and other large estates where ground travel is limited or time consuming.  Drones offer a real enhancement to surveillance technologies and speed of service.

Decreased overall cost benefits and greater flexibility with projects present some challenges that only a drone can rise to.

Laurence Dodds

Laurence is one of a small number of UK security industry professionals who has branched out in to physical security, from a highly respected and successful cyber security background.

Currently studying and expanding his knowledge of risk management he has a great interest and enviable acquired knowledge in the security applications of drones. Laurence is currently broadening his horizons, working with a S.E. England security service provider.