By Liz Hull
It has been nicknamed the flying saucepan and looks an unlikely weapon in the war against crime.
But yesterday it emerged that a suspected car thief had become the first person to be arrested in Britain thanks to the help of this miniature remote-controlled helicopter.
The Air Robot or drone was deployed by Merseyside police after officers lost the alleged offender who had escaped on foot in thick fog.
Using the device’s on-board camera and thermal-imaging technology, the operator was able to pick up the suspect through his body heat and direct foot patrols to his location.
It led officers to a 16-year-old youth, who was hiding in bushes alongside the Leeds-Liverpool canal, in Litherland, Merseyside.
The drone, which measures 3ft between the tips of its four carbon fibre rotor blades, uses unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology originally designed for military reconnaissance.
The battery-powered device can have a range of cameras attached to its main body, including CCTV surveillance or thermal imaging cameras.
It is designed to hover almost silently above crime scenes and send live footage to officers on the ground, but the unit can also ‘perch and stare’ from a solid platform, allowing the operator to capture hours of footage from a hidden vantage point.
They have been using the drones for two years, mainly to help in search and rescue operations, to execute drug warrants and to crack down on anti-social behaviour.
In August, Derbyshire police used a similar drone to monitor protests at the British National Party’s Red, White and Blue festival in Condor, Derbyshire.
However, this is the first time an arrest has been directly linked to the use of the Air Robot. The incident happened at around 4.30pm on January 26 after officers were told about a stolen Renault Clio in Bootle, Merseyside.
After a pursuit, two suspects abandoned the vehicle and tried to make off on foot.
Using its thermal imaging equipment the device quickly located its target in bushes beside the canal through his body heat and relayed live pictures to a police van nearby. Foot patrols then went and arrested him.
Both men who were arrested have since been released on police bail pending further inquiries.
Chief Inspector Nick Gunatilleke, of Merseyside anti-social behaviour taskforce, said: ‘These arrests demonstrate the value of having something like the UAV.
‘The live footage was being viewed by the UAV’s operator in the mobile command vehicle and they were able to direct patrols on the ground.’
The Home Office is now exploring how the craft can be used to give back-up to police, ambulance and fire services.
Spy drones are considered the future of policing, although critics have voiced concerns that they could be a worrying extension of Big Brother Britain.
Last month arms manufacturer BAE Systems said it was adapting military-style UAVs for a consortium of government agencies led by Kent police. Documents showed the force hoped to begin using the drones in time for the 2012 Olympics.
But they also indicated that the drones could eventually be used to spy on the civilian population, by rooting out motorists suspected of antisocial driving, for covert urban surveillance and to monitor ‘waste management’ for local councils.