Northern Ireland

DUP and Sinn Fein split over PSNI drone proposals

Image caption The drones being considered are small enough to fit into a rucksack

The DUP has welcomed plans by police to consider the use of mini drones to combat crime and the dissident republican threat.

The aerial surveillance machines being looked at by the PSNI are small enough to fit into a rucksack and can be assembled and deployed within minutes.

Robin Newton of the DUP said the drones could make police "safer".

But Sinn Fein warned the devices should not be seen as an alternative to community policing.

Pat Sheehan, who is a Sinn Fein member of the Policing Board, said: "We believe the best results in the fight against crime are when the police and community work in partnership together.

"Good policing won't have technology as its cornerstone."

However, Mr Newton welcomed the proposals and said the drones could also combat fuel smuggling and human trafficking.

"It has the potential to make the lives of officers safer. The cost of a helicopter is around £7m. The cost of running three helicopters is around £5m per annum."

He added that the drones could therefore have a "positive" effect on police budgets.

A police drone could cost at most £150,000. It is powered by batteries and is able to remain airborne for up to seven hours.

The devices being considered are fitted with cameras that automatically track a subject, can relay live pictures back to the operator, have a 3km range and fly at ground speeds of 50km per hour.

River crash

The Civil Aviation Authority has confirmed to the BBC that it has already had discussions with the PSNI about possible drone deployment.

Security sources say border areas like south Armagh are where the use of the technology would be most valuable because they can cover large areas at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter

The drones, or UAVs, used by law enforcement agencies around the world, have already been deployed by some UK police forces.

But there have been problems. A drone used by police in Liverpool crashed into the river Mersey. In addition there were red faces when police discovered they hadn't obtained the necessary CAA permission.

Mr Sheehan said the situation in Liverpool suggests the drones "are not as effective as the sales pitch suggests".

"We will be listening to the proposals the police put to the Policing Board," he added.

In a statement to the BBC, the PSNI said it constantly reviews the availability of new equipment and technology but at this stage has no immediate plans to buy any UAVs.

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