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Taking to the skies

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have soared in popularity in recent years, both for personal and commercial users. Terry Hanley, director
of security (centre of excellence) at Interserve, considers the benefits and risks their use could bring for security teams

The security industry has seen an exciting mix of new technologies come to the fore in recent years. There are a host of innovations – from driverless vehicles to advanced camera technology – that have the potential to transform how security services are provided, and security teams are rushing to catch up.

One of the technologies having significant impact on the sector today is UAVs – or drones as they are more commonly known. The commercial use of UAVs has rocketed in the past few years, driven by rapidly falling technology costs and a growing awareness of the benefits that these devices can bring. Hundreds of companies in the UK are now making forays into the world of UAVs. PwC announced in May this year, for example, that it has set up a ‘drone-powered solutions division’ to explore the applications for UAVs across sectors ranging from construction to insurance.

Able to remotely monitor large areas of land and survey otherwise hard-to-reach locations, the potential to use UAVs for security purposes is clear. However, as a number of recent, high-profile near misses have shown, any use of UAVs comes with contingent risks. Security teams need to make sure they identify and understand the potential challenges before sanctioning their use more widely.

When it comes to protecting large estates, UAVs have a great deal of potential as a cost-effective alternative to traditional monitoring and surveillance techniques.

CCTV devices are an established and useful means of monitoring access points in perimeter lines but can become prohibitively expensive if used to monitor large, open environments. As a result, it often falls to patrolling guards to carry out the time-consuming and arduous work of physically checking for trespassers or security breaches. By using UAVs to perform these tasks remotely, however, operators can improve the efficiency of their monitoring operations while freeing up security
staff to carry out more complex tasks.

Our trials are proving UAVs to be particularly useful to support security activity within large and remote estates. Rather than having a team of two or three individuals patrolling such sites, we can now deploy one operator located centrally – usually in a parked vehicle – who can use the drone to monitor significant areas without requiring additional boots on the ground.

Security in such environments is all about what you can see, detect and control. UAVs not only enable efficient use of manpower, they can pick up far greater detail than human eyesight – particularly at night. By combining them with thermal imaging cameras, for example, operators can quickly and easily survey undergrowth or woodland for potential intruders. Live images from the units can then be streamed back to a central security control point, who can then assess the visual evidence to determine the level of risk and, if deemed sufficiently serious, coordinate the deployment of additional resources.

By removing employees from the frontline, UAVs also reduce the risk posed to security teams – not just from would-be criminals but from the broader working environment. With more specialist operations such as the protection of industrial facilities, security teams need to be acutely aware of the dangers posed by their surroundings – the risks of which can be significantly mitigated by using UAVs to perform tasks remotely.

There is no doubt that UAVs hold great potential as a security tool, but providers need to go into any UAV programme with their eyes wide open, as there are several inherent risks when it comes to their use.

For a start, the possibility of collisions is very real. There are strict guidelines in place to minimise the risks, but accidents can still happen. Twenty-three near misses between aircraft and UAVs were investigated by the UK Airprox Board (UKAB) last year between April and October alone, while a reported collision between a British Airways jet and a UAV over Heathrow made headlines just a few weeks ago.

The issue of privacy and data security also presents a major challenge. This may be less of a problem when UAVs are used on private estates, but accusations of ‘snooping’ could easily be levelled at operators using them close to more densely populated areas.

The audio/visual data gathered by UAVs could, if it falls into the wrong hands, actually exacerbate security breaches rather than helping to prevent them. At Interserve, we are accredited to the ISO27001 information security management standard. This is a good first step, but organisations will need to consider introducing specific information sharing protocols to securely hold, handle and process information generated by UAVs.

Of course, the potential use of drones for illicit data gathering is something that security providers will also need to consider. For clients that operate highly sensitive and confidential sites, there is an increasing possibility that we will see UAVs being used as a way for others to gain access to key information. The use of counter-drone measures is something we are actively considering as part of our own security strategies, and would urge others across the industry to do the same as their use becomes more and more prevalent.

About Sarah OBeirne

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