Small Unmanned Surveillance Aircraft

How Small Unmanned Surveillance Aircraft or drones provide support for all emergency services at a large variety of incidents in Suffolk.

SFRS droneIn 2017 Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service and multi agency partners (through the Suffolk Resilience Forum) developed a Small Unmanned Surveillance Aircraft (SUSA) capability as part of a multi agency Air Support Unit (ASU).

These multi rotor aircraft are usually called Drones.

The local Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the use of the Air Support Unit is an agreement between:

  • Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service
  • Suffolk Constabulary
  • Suffolk County Council
  • Suffolk Lowland Search and Rescue
  • Norfolk & Suffolk 4x4 Response

Key facts about the drones

  • Two drones are based at the Woodbridge Fire and Police station for multi agency tasking
  • Two drones will provide capacity for multiple simultaneous deployments across Suffolk and further afield which is important for a 24 hour, 7 day resilient emergency capability for operational air support
  • Specially trained remote pilots from Suffolk Fire & Rescue Service, Suffolk Constabulary and Suffolk Lowland Search & Rescue will fly the drones.
  • ‘Permission for Commercial Operations’ from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) was received in 2017 and this is underpinned by an Air Operations Manual.
  • Detailed records about all flights, all images and footage captured and all other information about the drone that is required by the CAA are maintained by the Chief Pilot

How the drone is used

The drone will provide a range of aerial surveillance options to support emergency services and voluntary organisations across a wide range of incidents including:

  • large-scale open fires or complex structural fires
  • urban search and rescue
  • major incident or disaster response
  • investigative support
  • hazardous materials response including Environmental Impact Assessments
  • Road Traffic Accident
  • significant multi-agency events
  • missing persons searches
  • pre planned operations and risk information gathering

The drone helps multi agency responders make decisions about the best way to deal with an incident by improving the ability to see and understand what is happening from the air. This also helps to reduce risks to the public and emergency service workers.

Training and quality assurance

  • Pilots must regularly fly the drone to maintain their skills so occasionally members of public may see pilots operating drones in their communities for this purpose. Impact on privacy will always be minimised as a key consideration of flight planning, especially during training flights.
  • The drones must be tested regularly in a controlled environment to make sure any problems are found and avoid a serious operational or safety issue while being used at an emergency incident.

Drone flight restrictions

As part of the ‘Permission for Commercial Operations’, and also as responsible SUSA operators, SFRS Air Support Unit pilots will always ensure that the drone is flown:

  • Within the line of sight of a remote pilot.
  • Below 120 metres (400 feet) in height.
  • At least 50 metres from people, property, vehicles and vessels the Pilot is not in control of.
  • 30 metres away from people during take-off.
  • Clear of any aircraft, airports / airfields and other restricted areas

These form part of the Civil Aviation Authority's Drone Code. All responsible drone users will fly within these guidelines. As an Emergency Service Drone operator certain exemptions to relax these guidelines slightly are allowed (subject to Risk Assessment and command authorisation) for life saving operations or to avert a major disaster.

Drone cameras

Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service has two high-definition cameras that can be fitted to either drone for:

  • image photography and video recording
  • thermal imaging camera that detects heat and identifies temperatures

A detailed Data Privacy Impact Assessment means that when flying:

  • The drone will only capture photographic images or video footage if there is a clearly identified organisational requirement.
  • Any image or video that is captured is reviewed and either destroyed if not required, or put into a robust digital storage system, which is covered by a data retention policy.

Images of the drones in operations shared on social media

When the drones are being used operationally to capture or view images, a notification for #SuffolkAirSupport will be posted to the Suffolk Fire and Rescue Services' social media accounts whenever it is practicable to do so. 

Follow us on Twitter @SuffolkFire and Facebook.

By using social media, we can inform the public about official use of the drones to reduce concerns about privacy impacts and may also be a means of providing public safety information. For significant training deployments a notification may also be posted on social media for public awareness.

Pilot Identification

  • Pilots will wear uniform and be identifiable wearing Hi Viz jackets with the word Pilot or Observer on the rear panel.
  • A minimum of two pilots are needed to fly the drone safely: a remote pilot controls the drone itself (and only looks at the drone) and a camera operator with the job of controlling the camera, capturing the images and recording if required. 

Contact us

Email Fire.businesssupport@suffolk.gov.uk for further details about the Air Support Unit operating drones in Suffolk.