Police must only use unmanned drones as part of air support plans if it is both appropriate and proportionate, a Home Office minister warned today.
Damian Green said the notion of remotely-controlled drones patrolling the UK's skies should be treated like any other piece of police kit or activity.
His comments came at the launch of a new National Police Air Service (NPAS) which aims to remove force borders, improve the service and save millions of pounds.
Chief Constable Alex Marshall, who is leading the NPAS scheme for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), has said the service should start looking towards drones that can stay in the air longer and would be cheaper than running manned aircraft.
Speaking at Redhill Aerodrome in Surrey, Mr Green said: "Drones are like any other piece of kit - where it's appropriate or proportionate to use them then we will look at using them.
"But they need to be treated the same as any other piece of police equipment or police activity.
"They should only be used when it's appropriate and proportionate to do so."
Despite having fewer bases and fewer helicopters, Mr Green insisted the new arrangements would provide a better service for the public.
"You've got one national service where the deployment will be more efficient and more rational and where the aircraft can be pointed at incidents where they're needed to be faster than they are now," he said.
Asked about fears that the service to some rural areas will suffer, he added: "There will be regional aircraft available and the fact they will be deployed better and faster will mean that the service will be at least as good then as it is now.
"Inevitably, most of the crime happens in fairly predictable areas at fairly predictable times so absolutely the aircraft will be able to be pointed at those places and those times where they'll be most useful."
The national air service will have 26 helicopters running from 23 bases across the country.
It is estimated that the cost of running air support will fall from around £63 million to around £48 million, and forces are aiming to maintain the target of an average response time of 20 minutes.
South Yorkshire initially refused to agree to the plans for a national service, and as a result former policing minister Nick Herbert ordered it to take part.
It wanted to maintain a helicopter based in Sheffield, and under the new system has to cover the cost of that service by itself.
Mr Marshall said: "Artificial boundaries have meant that helicopters are restricted to operating within their own force area or consortia.
"A truly national, borderless service will ensure effective coverage of urban and rural areas."
Mr Marshall said that, by placing aircraft in "more logical locations", the new service would be able to provide 98% of the population of England and Wales with a response in under 20 minutes, similar to the current 97%.
Asked if the service was simply a result of cost-cutting, the Hampshire Chief Constable added: "Its origins are to have a better service, better organised, and it was clear right from the start that it could be done at lower cost.
"The design of this came before any of the current round of cuts.
"It takes time to get 43 forces to agree and get all the arrangements in place."
Speaking earlier about the potential use of drones, he said: "We don't use them in mainstream policing at the moment but they may well offer something for the future.
"They can stay up longer, they're cheaper, they can do things that you can't do having people in the air.
"But the Civil Aviation Authority, for example, doesn't allow the use of drones out of line of sight, and there are other restrictions on using them.
"Plus the debate that still needs to be had - it might be cost- effective, you might be able to keep it up longer, but is it acceptable to the citizens of the UK to have them in the air?
"Within line of sight they've been used by police and fire for just monitoring a building or whatever it might be.
"We should be looking at different ways of providing air support in the future that don't involve putting humans up in the air, but the public need to find it acceptable and it needs to be within the law."
Led by West Yorkshire Police, the new service will be phased in over the next three years, starting today with four bases and 11 forces in the South East.
These are: Cambridgeshire, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, Thames Valley, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.
The bases will be at Boreham Airport in Essex, Wattisham and Honington in Suffolk, Redhill in Surrey and Benson in Oxfordshire.
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