A fleet of high-tech drones could be used to provide emergency assistance to police, fire brigades, the NHS and Border Force officials under a radical new plan, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
An unmanned air force would search for missing people and suspects, patrol coasts, deliver aid to victims of flood or fire and transport emergency medical equipment.
Known as the Bluelight Air Support Programme, it would massively increase surveillance powers and free up police helicopters to focus on critical tasks such as transporting officers to scenes of terrorism.
Cheshire Chief Constable Simon Byrne has delivered a secret report on the scheme to the Home Office, and it is hoped Ministers will approve funding to develop it further.
‘The technology exists and is in day-to-day use in the military,’ one source told The Mail on Sunday. ‘Drones can add a lot of value and are much cheaper than helicopters. The question is whether there’s a will to replace helicopters with drones.’
The one-year project was given £120,000 by the Police Innovation Fund to deliver a ‘proof of concept’ for the future of emergency services air support, according to documents obtained by this newspaper.
The National Police Air Service (NPAS) met only 42 per cent of the 74,142 requests from officers for helicopter attendance in 2014-15, meaning there is huge unmet demand for an ‘eye in the sky’.
Some forces already use drones, including Devon and Cornwall, which set up a dedicated unit in July, while fire brigades have used them to survey damage, including at the Grenfell Tower disaster. But the Bluelight Air Support team believe there is more they could do.
However, Mr Byrne admitted his paper had ‘caused some emotion’ among police chiefs. There has also been scepticism in the aviation sector.
NPAS said in a document seen by The Mail on Sunday that ‘at this time there is neither the available technology nor legislation to permit [the use of drones in this way]’.
A National Police Chiefs Council spokesman said: ‘There has been some early work but the program is still in its initial stages.’