Eye in the Sky: drones at Salisbury Plain

Eye in the Sky: drones at Salisbury Plain

Next time you visit Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA) you may notice some Unidentified Flying Objects. Don’t be alarmed, they’re just our new drones.  

The Training Safety Marshals (TSMs) recently took delivery of ten DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise drones, more properly known as Unmanned Air Systems (UAS), for use on the training area. They can be used in a number of ways to help us in our duties to maintain a “Safe Place” for the Armed Forces to train.  

All of the operators, currently nine, undertook five days training at the Surveillance Target Acquisition branch in Larkhill and obtained the Class 1b UAS qualification prior to being issued with the drones.  

The air space above SPTA is a very busy MOD Air Danger Area, which means there is a process to be followed prior to the drone being deployed so that the air space remains safe for those authorised to be there. This requirement means use of drones by the public in the SPTA air space is strictly prohibited, even when there might not appear to be aircraft in the area. 

Use of the drones 

Five of the drones are equipped with a zoom camera and five have a dual set up which also includes a thermal camera.  

Although they have only been in use for a few months, they have already proven their worth. Much of SPTA is accessible to the public at certain times as long as the byelaws are being followed, however, we frequently come across people who are not following the rules; sometimes accidentally and sometimes deliberately.  

Our TSMs have used the drones to capture footage of illegal motorbike activity on numerous occasions; in most cases the bikes have dispersed once the drone is spotted by the riders. Two vans were seized after a drone was used to monitor vans being used to transport illegal bikes to the area. The Ministry of Defence Police (MDP) and Wiltshire Police waited until the drone’s camera showed the riders returning to the vans before moving in.  

A dismounted motorbike rider waves at the camera above him. Behind him is his motorbike, just off the side of a track.
A motorbike rider waves at one of the drones. [Crown Copyright / MOD 2020]

When members of the public are in out-of-bounds areas, the loudspeaker on the drones has been used to let people know they are somewhere they shouldn’t be. The team also used a drone to record evidence of a campsite, hidden from view on Sidbury Hill. The drone was able to direct a member of the Ministry of Defence Police to the tent who then issued two tickets for offences in breach of COVID-19 rules.   

Footage from the drone was clear enough to record the number plates of two 4×4 vehicles driving illegally in the Cross Country Driving Area and capture evidence.    

An aerial view from the drone of MOD Police officers talking to the drivers of two parked 4x4 vehicles.
MOD Police officers talking to the drivers of two 4x4s. [Crown Copyright / MOD 2020]

A number of times, drones have been deployed to watch authorised personnel, whether TSMs or MDP officers, when dealing with members of the public as an added layer of safety. With a range of up to five miles and able to reach 45mph at maximum speed, the drones have already proved themselves extremely valuable to our team on Salisbury Plain, both for providing guidance to those who may have inadvertently strayed into out-of-bounds areas and for deterring and recording illegal activity.  

What’s next? 

The success of the use of the drones so far means we plan is to make sure that all SPTA staff who deploy on the ground are trained in their use. The intent is to roll this out to other regions who will use them in a similar manner and no doubt achieve the same results.