Paris, France, March 2021 – In recent years, the use of drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), by public services in urban areas has significantly increased. These systems can carry out effective monitoring and surveillance functions in public spaces. They can be used to prevent potential physical attacks on critical infrastructure (power, water, life systems), airports, open-air events and concerts. Some European cities have established Drone Units within their municipal police to develop, implement and improve their use in public spaces. However, research is still needed to identify the best way to obtain optimal results. The use of these technologies raises concerns about the right to privacy and data protection. Additional risks are related to potential cybersecurity breaches and malicious uses. In this interview, two PACTESUR partner cities, Turin and Edinburgh1, discuss the challenge of employing drones in public space protection.
What are the main benefits of employing drones in public space protection? In what ways do they increase the protection of urban areas?
Gianfranco Todesco, Chief Commissioner of the Technological Investigations Department (RIT) of the Local Police of Turin – The main benefit of employing drones in public space protection is the opportunity of having real-time day and night sensors able to detect the presence of people in certain urban areas where they might be at risk. For instance, at night, in the park, even in the darkness under the branches of the trees, a thermal camera can detect the presence of people. During a large event, we can monitor inflow and outflow routes and quickly detect danger by moving the camera on the drone.
Inspector Graeme Rankin, Head of the Aviation Safety & Security Unit (ASSU), representing the City of Edinburgh – In Scotland we have two distinct and separate capabilities. The Police Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) Unit uses drones to keep people safe across Scotland. Drones are used as a quick and effective way to search large or sometimes inaccessible areas that would otherwise take a search team on the ground significant time and resources. The RPAS Unit is of the opinion that drones are not best suited to urban areas due to building dynamics and proximity to people. Public space CCTV and ground resources are found to be the most effective in an urban search. In Police Scotland, our Aviation Safety and Security Unit (ASSU) employ a range of techniques to protect the public and partners from potential aerial threats. Such mitigations include airspace restrictions, geofencing and trained responders to support and protect legal drone users and to help local police with growing illegal use of drones. Such methods are deployed at sites and for events, operations and incidents.
Do you collaborate with other European drone units? What is this cooperation based on?
City of Turin – Yes, we have established a European Drone Unit network which involves a range of Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs), private companies, Universities, academia and research centres with the aim of working together on new frontiers of using drones to improve the services offered by the City.
Turin is the first city in Europe where there are two testing areas, both indoor and outdoor. The outdoor area is called “DoraLab”: it is an urban park with an optimal position that guarantees security conditions for the flight of drones. The indoor testing area is called “Città dell’aerospazio” (“aerospace city”), where pilots are trained to face difficult outdoor conditions such as heavy winds.
City of Edinburgh – The Police Scotland RPAS Unit work with local industry and academic partners, but have not engaged to date with other international partners. The Aviation Safety and Security Unit do work with UK and EU partners, both public and private. We are engaged with the PACTESUR project, which as part of its work on the protection of public spaces explores the advantages and latest methods of employing unmanned aircraft to support public service activity, but also mitigating some of the potential threats to public safety posed by some unmanned aviation operations.
What are the main challenges national and local authorities face in the use of drones?
City of Edinburgh – From the viewpoint of using Police drones, challenging finances mean keeping pace with evolving technology is difficult. Current general understanding of the unmanned aviation environment can result in negative media reporting. Strict aviation regulation creates challenging operating conditions, but that can help maintain the highest safety standards.
City of Turin – The main challenge is the absence of “urban airways” to ensure the development of services both for public authorities and private companies. “Urban airways” are dedicated “flight corridors” (sky lanes) for drone operations that guarantee the highest safety with minimal disruption to citizens.
What could be the consequences for privacy and data protection of the use of drones to monitor and control vulnerable public spaces? What are the main ethical and social considerations?
City of Turin – Legislation already exists if we consider that the use of drones does not differ from public video surveillance. However, there are more ethical issues about the use of artificial intelligence algorithms on board of drones equipped with cameras.
City of Edinburgh – All Police Scotland drone operations are conducted in line with a Data Protection Impact Assessment (Privacy Assessment), General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and an Equalities & Human Rights Impact Assessment. Police Scotland inform the public or communities of a particular area of proposed police drone activity using social media, face to face engagement and sometimes leafleting. Community engagement is crucial as it builds trust, reassurance and confidence. All police drone activity is overt and transparent. Deployment must be for a legitimate policing purpose, be safe, legal, proportionate and necessary.
How can we improve public acceptance of drones used for public space protection?
City of Turin – This is a very interesting topic because the issue of drones has always been linked to war or spying. We believe it is necessary to better inform citizens on the other uses of drones: when this happens, the public acceptance of drones will improve.
City of Edinburgh – Community engagement, transparency through the provision of regular updates for the public are some of the methods which can establish public trust and support. There seems to be a general mistrust of the use of unmanned aircraft at present, which is diminishing with time. With the expansion of commercial operations for the public good, this situation will inevitably improve. However, the public becoming used to the presence of drones in the sky above our cities will result in fewer calls to police about the presence of drones which may be engaged in criminal activity emphasising the need for lower airspace management processes that are fit for purpose.
Beyond the police, what other local actors could benefit from the use of drones in public spaces?
City of Turin – All the services of the City would benefit from the use of drones in public spaces protection such as environment protection and sustainability, where drones with multispectral sensors could be employed to identify plant diseases and drought stress or to prevent illegal waste disposal. As for urban mobility, drones can collect data related to mobility in areas where access is difficult, or they can also ensure the safety and security of runners in urban parks. Disinfecting drones could also be deployed to spray streets to stop the spread of the Covid-19, helping to prevent exposure to the virus. In this context, our Drones Unit have conducted sanitation training exercises in the testing areas, however, these have not yet been deployed in the city.
City of Edinburgh – Fire and Rescue Services use of unmanned aircraft for some post incident investigation purposes, building inspections and event, operation and scene situational awareness are examples of multi-agency benefits.
In your opinion, what are the main challenges concerning European drone regulations in public space protection?
City of Turin – The main challenges are linked with the evolution of drone technology as was the case for choppers. In order to safely fly over people, we need to develop technology and regulation, such as the creation of ‘urban airways’ for drones.
City of Edinburgh – The changes in legislation since the new year do present exciting opportunities for unmanned aircraft operators and pilots to fly in circumstances which were not possible before. That provides some excellent opportunities for industry and private flyers alike. The challenge now is to rapidly invest in technology that ensures lower airspace is safely de-conflicted and the general and aviating public are kept safe from those who may use unmanned aircraft either recklessly, or for a deliberate criminal purpose.
The Drones Unit of the City of Turin, has set up the “Turin Air Mobility Innovation Academy”. What have you learned from your experience in protecting public spaces with drones and artificial intelligence (A.I.)?
City of Turin – We have learned that drones must be integrated with actions and technologies that already exist on the ground. As I mentioned, one of the main challenges is the absence of proper “urban airways” for drone services.
Moreover, the use of A.I. technologies needs to be brought back to ethical rules and constant monitoring. To better understand this concept, A.I. seeks to produce machines that have some of the qualities that the human mind has, such as reasoning, problem-solving, planning or learning.
You participated in a workshop organised by the city of Turin on ‘New technologies and Innovative Approaches for Safety and Security of Public Spaces with Drones’ in December 2019. In your opinion, what are the main benefits for cities to collaborate and share knowledge on the use of drones for public space protection?
City of Edinburgh – There are excellent opportunities to collaborate, bringing together subtly different areas of growing expertise. The ability to learn from others who are working hard to keep people safe means ideas are shared, working methodologies can improve and we can collectively ensure the public get the best quality and value of service from local policing and authorities. Working in isolation at a time of such rapid growth in this area of business is counter intuitive and would be an unfortunate waste of potential collaboration with our European colleagues.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Efus.
About the authors
- The City of Turin – Gianfranco Todesco is the Chief Commissioner of the Technological Investigations Department (RIT) of the Local Police of Turin. He is a Ente Nazionale per l’Aviazione Civile (ENAC) certified UAV pilot and operator (CRO).
- The City of Edinburgh – Inspector Graeme Rankin is a Police Inspector and the Head of the Aviation Safety & Security Unit (ASSU), Operational Support Division, Police Scotland.
1 The use of drones is used as a national resource; the responses are related to Scotland and not just Edinburgh.
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