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As posted on Drone complaints soar as concerns grow over snooping

The number of incidents in the UK involving drones reported to police has increased more than twelve-fold over the past two years.

Complaints, including allegations of snooping, burglary “scoping” exercises, mid-air near-misses and the smuggling of contraband into prisons, rose to almost 10 a day (3,456) last year, compared with 283 in 2014. Last year’s figure was almost three times higher than the 2015 total of 1,237 incidents.

The true total is likely to be even higher as the data, obtained by the Press Association through freedom of information requests, was not available for all UK forces.

Sales of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), available for as as little as £30 and often containing built-in cameras, have risen sharply in recent years but as their popularity has increased so have concerns about their use.

There have been 59 drone near-misses reported in the past 12 months, compared with six in 2014, raising fears of a potentially catastrophic collision. In one of the most recent incidents, in February, a drone flew within 20 metres of a plane on the approach to Heathrow.

Last year, Daniel Kelly, 27, became the first person to be jailed for flying contraband into a prisons after smuggling items including tobacco and the psychoactive drug Spice into two jails in Kent and one in Hertfordshire.

Incidents recorded by police also included a number of disputes between neighbours. Some related merely to annoyance but in others concerns were raised over snooping. In August, a complaint was made to Suffolk police that a neighbour was repeatedly flying a drone over a garden when teenage girls were sunbathing.

Sussex police recorded the highest number of drone-related incidents last year, with 240, followed by Greater Manchester police at 225.

Prof David H Dunn, of Birmingham University, said people face a major challenge in maintaining their privacy at home because of the proliferation of drones.

“Previously you had a hedge, you had a wall and you could do whatever you wanted in your garden without people disturbing you,” he told the Press Association. “That has changed because of drones.

“It’s true for celebrities. It’s true for everyone. Anecdotally I’ve heard that burglars using drones is a big issue for police forces. People are using them to fly behind properties to see if the lights are on, to see what sort of French windows they have or whether there are windows open.”

Civil Aviation Authority regulations already require drones to be kept in line of sight and flown no higher than 120 metres. They also forbid any drone with a camera from flying within 50 metres of buildings, vehicles, people or over large crowds.

But the rise in popularity of drones and concerns about their misuse have led to proposals to enhance safety. The Department of Transport is reviewing responses to its recent consultation on the subject, which raised the possibility of several new measures including a criminal offence of misuse of drones, mandatory registration of new devices and tougher penalties for illegal flying near no-fly zones such as airports and prisons.

Asst Ch Con Steve Barry, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for drones, said: “As awareness of what drones are and what they can do continues to grow, police forces have seen increases in concerns and reports by the public.

“We have to balance the growth of this technology by ensuring that the public are aware of the strong regulatory framework and detailed user guidance that is available relating to drone use.”

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