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Police forces all over the UK will soon be able to draw on unmanned aircraft from a national fleet, according to Home Office plans. Last month it was revealed that modified military aircraft drones will carry out surveillance on everyone from protesters and antisocial motorists to fly-tippers, and will be in place in time for the 2012 Olympics.
Surveillance is only the start, however. Military drones quickly moved from reconnaissance to strike, and if the British police follow suit, their drones could be armed -- but with non-lethal weapons rather than Hellfire missiles.
Watching events on the ground without being able to act is frustrating. Targets often got away before an unarmed drone could summon assistance. In fact, in 2000 it was reported that an airborne drone spotted Osama bin Laden but could do nothing but watch him escape. So the RAF has been carrying out missions in Afghanistan with missile-armed Reapers since 2007. From the ground these just look like regular aircraft.
Unmanned aircraft can also be fitted with speakers, such as the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), which could not only warn fly tippers that they were breaking the law but also be loud enough to drive them away.
Helicopters already mount powerful searchlights, and strobe lighting capabilities can turn such systems into effective nonlethal weapons. High-intensity strobes can cause dizziness, disorientation and loss of balance making it virtually impossible to run away.
A "light based personnel immobilisation device" developed by Peak Beam Systems Inc has been successfully tested by the US military, and work to mount it on an unmanned helicopter in the States is under way.
This sort of light would be too dangerous for a manned aircraft because of the crew being affected. But an unmanned "strober" could be a literal crime stopper, and something we could see deployed within the next couple of years.
Robots are already the preferred way of approaching possible bombs without putting officers lives at risk. In the future, police may prefer to deal with potentially dangerous suspects the same way, tackling them remotely using a taser if the situation requires it.
Which leads Wired to ask you for your thoughts: Are tasers and armed robot drones the ideal next step for British law enforcement, or will it just make our police officers less capable of dealing with serious problems when they're forced to intervene in person? Let us know in the comments below.