UK Police Patrol Brighton Beach by Drone to Stop Sexual Violence

BY Zacc Dukowitz
4 October 2023

Local police recently started regular drone patrols along Brighton Beach at night.

The reason? To stop sexual assaults.

Credit: Sussex Police

Assaults have gone up in Brighton, a popular tourist destination in the UK, and the Sussex Police believe these nightly patrols will help reverse that trend.

The initiative coincides with an upcoming period called “fresher week,” in which college students celebrate the start of the fall. Given the increased number of young people that will be out drinking, the drone is intended to curb the potential for attacks.

How the Drone Helps Prevent Sexual Assaults

The Sussex Police are deploying the drone over the Brighton beachfront, looking out for both potential victims and potential attackers.

The primary aim is to prevent crime by helping to spot vulnerable people and criminal behavior, ultimately stopping people coming to harm . . . Everyone should be able to enjoy a night out in safety and this drone is another tool in our toolbox as we protect the public.

– Adele Tucknott, Sussex Police Superintendent and Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Lead

The surveillance is focused on places where people congregate at night—clubs, bars, or other local hangouts—as well as on the nearby beach, where it can be hard to see at night.

Flights are primarily done on Friday and Saturday nights, when there are most people out.

There are four key ways the drone is helping police curb sexual violence:

  • Warning potential victims in real time about people behaving suspiciously.
  • Deterring potential attackers in real time by letting them know they’re being watched.
  • Speeding response times for police intervention when it is needed, by helping officers know where the attack is happening and informing them of events as they unfold (similar to the real-time intel benefits DFR programs provide).
  • Collecting evidence that can be used to convict an attacker.

There’s also a fifth way the drone helps—acting as a general deterrent before an attack is underway.

By spreading the word that the police are watching, the Sussex Police hope that any would-be attacker will think twice, and not even risk an attack given how much more dangerous it will be for them now.

About the Sussex Police Drone Initiative

The Sussex police drones comes with:

  • A high resolution thermal camera that lets it “see” what’s happening at night.
  • A spotlight, allowing the police to shine a light on a woman walking alone to deter attackers or to illuminate a potential attacker to scare them away.
  • A loudspeaker, allowing the police to share warnings and information with those walking at night.

Two devoted police drone operators fly the drone at night, trading off the piloting responsibility while communicating alerts with other officers on the ground. When a person is identified as potentially vulnerable or when someone seems suspicious, officers can intervene as needed using intel from the drone team.

Credit: Sussex Police

The Sussex Police believe this approach to curbing sexual violence in the area will be more effective than using foot patrols, since officers on foot can’t see well in the darkness on the beach and are also unable to move quickly across the sand.

[Related read: 54 Use Cases for Drones in Public Safety]

Before launching this new initiative along Brighton Beach, the Sussex Police used drones to monitor accidents and surveil suspects in nearby West Sussex.

According to the Sussex Police that effort was a success, resulting in them finding people of interest in several West Sussex neighborhoods, including Bognor Regis, Worthing, Crawley, and Horsham.

Police Drones for Surveillance

The benefits of using drones to surveil an area where people may get attacked seem clear. But there are legitimate privacy concerns about opening the door to let police surveil entire neighborhoods without specific goals, and these are often voiced when police departments begin building out drone programs.

And these concerns can arise even when the target use for the drone isn’t surveillance.

In New York City recently, after the NYPD announced that it would be using drones as a remote public-broadcasting system, there was pushback from some online.

The goal of the NYPD’s tests was to see if it made sense to alert people to severe weather by drone. But detractors said it was both an invasion of privacy and just “a great way to creep us out” (that quote is from Albert Fox Cahn, Executive Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project).

One thing is for sure: When it comes to drones, the more police departments communicate with residents, the better.

The Chula Vista Police Department—which is the first ever department to launch a Drone As First Responder program—shares all of its data on drone missions with the public, allowing anyone who wants to see every single drone flight that’s taken place and why it was carried out.

A map showing a recent Chula Vista PD flight | Credit: Airdata / Chula Vista Police Department

The Sussex Police have also done a good job by sharing their drone program plans publicly, both detailing what they plan to do and why they plan to do it. A good next step could be to follow the lead of the Chula Vista Police Department, and proactively share flight data.

However, we say “could” because the Brighton Beach use case is pretty specific.

If a would-be attacker is aware of the flight patterns of local police drones, they might be able to change their routines and continue hurting people.

Admittedly, that would be a pretty savvy criminal. But the possibility does highlight how complex it is to balance privacy concerns with taking steps to keep people safe from being attacked at night.

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