Drone used to track offenders in joint police and council operations

Technology: Ella Cooper with Barnsley Council's new drone
Technology: Ella Cooper with Barnsley Council's new drone

Illegal off road motorists and bikers are now being monitored by a drone-mounted camera in joint police and council operations after the local authority became one of only three in the country licenced to use such devices.

The technology provides a modern answer to the long-standing problem of how to deal with illegal scrambler bikes and 4x4 vehicles which are used without authority on open land, putting the public at risk, causing noise nuisance and damaging the environment.

Conventional police operations are difficult because motorcycles in particular are so fast they are difficult to stop and the risks involved in starting pursuits mean that cannot happen.

South Yorkshire Police have their own off road motorcyclists and are now working in conjunction with Barnsley Council in joint operations which see the council-operated technology used to guide the police riders in to snare their target.

The drone means suspects can be followed on camera from above – much like using a police helicopter but without the costs and questions over availability – making it difficult to escape officers on the ground.

Although motorcyclists riding illegally are the most common problem, drivers using four wheel drive vehicles and quad bikes are also a source of complaints and can be tracked and dealt with in the same way.

Where vehicles are registered for road use, the camera is also powerful enough to record details from the number plate.

The council is linked by computer to the DVLA database, meaning vehicle owners can then be traced and challenged, even if they are not stopped at the scene.

Misuse of drones – particularly around prisons where they are blamed as a tool for smuggling drugs and telephones over security fences – is well documented but the enforcement agencies have been slower to adopt the technology.

Barnsley has become one of only three councils in the country to get the accreditation needed from the Civil Aviation Authority needed to operate them.

The ‘pilot’ flying the device must be licenced to ensure they are used legally and safely.

Ella Cooper, a service manager with the Safer Neighbourhood Service that works in conjunction with police, said: "It is not just a toy, it is something serious. It cannot be flown below 50m in a built up area. There are lots of rules and regulations and we are one of only three with a licence to do that."

The drone is part of an increasing armoury of technology being used by the council to combat offenders who cause problems for others.

They have also acquired covert cameras which have been successful in getting fly-tippers prosecuted, with some facing heavy penalties at court.

The equipment is able to record high quality images which are acceptable for prosecution purposes but are tiny, meaning they can be used in ways which are virtually impossible to see.

Because of the technology used, they can record at night with clarity and are motion sensitive, meaning images will only be recorded when there is activity at the site being monitored.

Under legal rules, councils must erect signs where filming might take place but there when the cameras are in use there is no visible evidence to suggest they are present.

That leaves fly-tippers to guess whether or not the area they choose to dump rubbish is under surveillance or not.

When the cameras record the registration numbers of vehicles suspected of use in fly-tipping, it allows the council to seize the vehicle as part of their investigation.

In some cases they end up being crushed, though owners can take steps to recover them in other cases.