Australian police want aerial surveillance drones to track license plates and monitor cars of interest

With hackers, DIYers and the military using them for years, domestic police forces the world over are apparently itching to get some surveillance drones of their own. Now Australian authorities have discussed using drones alongside a new license plate recognition system, autonomously tracking vehicles of interest.

The city of Canberra is installing a suite of new point-to-point speed cameras, which read a car's license plate to calculate its average speed between two set points. The system can thereby determine whether a driver is traveling within the speed limit. But Aussie authorities also mulled other uses for the two-camera technology, like using them to detect stolen cars or unregistered vehicles. Or integrating them into a broader surface-to-air surveillance network.

"A specific benefit would derive if the P2P cameras were linked to UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) which could track vehicles of interest," a senior police officer wrote, according to government documents reported in the Canberra Times.

This was apparently discussed sometime last year, but it just became public under a Freedom of Information Act request filed by political opposition leaders. Several groups oppose the idea, according to the Times.

It would not be the first time a domestic police agency aimed to use aerial support for its vehicle-surveillance work. The UK is leading the way on several such projects. A couple British towns set up trials that integrated satellite surveillance with the P2P cameras, as we told you last year. And in March 2010, a quadrotor drone got its first-ever collar when it helped police track down a car thief.

The Brits also have plans to deploy UAVs for domestic monitoring during the 2012 Olympics, where they could be used to watch ATM machines, prevent theft of equipment and even "monitoring antisocial driving," as the Guardian put it last year.

In the U.S., FAA regulations remain a roadblock for police forces hoping to fly drones, but some police departments are testing drones for eventual use.

This Australian concept raises a few unique questions, however. The P2P cameras have been controversial because they empower a computer to hand out speeding tickets - there's no human accuser a driver can confront. This is one reason some Australian Opposition authorities are writing legislation that would prevent any fines from being issued, at least for the first few months, according to the Times story. Involving a drone just adds another layer of civil rights and privacy concerns.

[Canberra Times via Slashdot]

Image: Point to Point Speed Cameras/Wikipedia. This post originally appeared on Popular Science.