Potential for abuse with Queensland Police trial of drones.

QUEENSLAND police officers are testing a hi-tech surveillance drone that can be used to chase criminals, detect drug crops and find missing people all at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter.

As both Anna Bligh and Campbell Newman make competing election promises for a permanent police helicopter, The Courier-Mail can reveal testing is under way for superseding technology.

But civil liberty advocates warn that drones capable of flying at low altitudes pose significant privacy concerns.

The drones can be carried in the boots of cars and deployed almost immediately. They cost about $30 an hour to run, against about $500 an hour for a helicopter.

A police spokesman confirmed testing was under way but would not give details on what the drone would be used for.

“The Queensland Police (Service) is always inquiring about, and scoping, new technology in the marketplace,” he said.

“As the QPS is in a research-and-testing stage to determine viability of this particular product, we are not in a position to make further comment.”

Police Federation of Australia chief executive Mark Burgess said he was aware of several police jurisdictions trialling drones  or Unmanned Aviation Vehicles.

“They could be used for things like surveillance of areas where it might be difficult to get personnel on the ground,” he said, adding he was unsure how advanced testing was with state police forces.

“Drones will add value to what we already do, but I can’t see them totally replacing helicopters,” he said.

“They can’t land equipment and they can’t land personnel.

“The reality is, They will be one of the tools in the armoury.”

But Australian Council of Civil Liberties president Terry O’Gorman last night warned police should not be testing drones without “immediate input and oversight” from Queensland’s Privacy Commissioner.

“The potential for abuse is very worrying,” he said.

“Our concerns are we will get softened up by police who will say it will only be used to spot drug crops, or detect traffic snarls but, in due course, they will end up being used for everyday, mundane policing situations  and that is a real concern.

“We are not objecting to drones – we would be Luddites to do so – but the ease with which drones can be used to spy on private property is concerning.

“This again raises our longstanding criticism that we’ve had of the Queensland Police Service that the slightest amendment to legislation has to go through Parliament, yet, major changes like these can go through with no parliamentary input at all.”

Australian Certified UAV Operators Association president Joe Urli said drones were a “must have” for any modern police force.

“They can be used to gain a tactical advantage over a situation or to eliminate the risk of a police officer going into an unsafe situation,” Mr Urli said.

He said that drones were already being used for biosecurity, crop monitoring and bushfire monitoring as well as search and rescue operations in Australia.

“There are many different types  anything over 150kg is considered a large UAV and the smallest can fit in the palm of your hand,” he said.

Late last year, police in Dallas, Texas, bought a $300,000 Shadowhawk drone to do some of the work that would normally be done using manned helicopters.

But privacy concerns were also raised in Dallas.

In Queensland, an election pledge by the LNP revealed that two police helicopters would cost $18 million to run over four years.

Police plan to use a drone  equipped with an infra-red camera  for everything from tracking criminals to finding lost hikers in difficult country.

In Cook County, Illinois, the sheriff’s office was late last year in negotiations to buy drones to take over some of the work of its helicopters.

“It’s the quickest and best way to get more efficient . . . as opposed to having dedicated people waiting for the weather to break for a helicopter to go up,” Sheriff Tom Dart told Fox Chicago News.

Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority spokesman Peter Gibson said that there was a growing interest in unmanned aerial vehicles in Australia, but any police force wanting to use the vehicles would need to apply for an operators’ certificates, the same as everyone else.