Google Glasses

Cops of the future? British bobbies get a sci-fi makeover

Home Office researchers are looking into a range of sci-fi equipment that will transform British police officers into figures closer to Robocop than Dixon of Dock Green.

Innovations on the Home Office wishlist includes a robotic exoskeleton to take the load off weary legs, a range of wearable computers including Google Glass-type spectacles and body armour made from graphene (the novel material that earned its discoverers a Nobel prize in 2010).

The glimpse into the future was contained in a presentation to companies by the director of the Home Office’s Centre for Applied Science and Technology (Cast), which has been released following a Freedom of Information request by the Guardian.

Rob Coleman was speaking at an evening event behind closed doors in central London in July hosted by TechUK, an umbrella group for the tech industry. While a list of the companies that attended the meeting has not been made public, TechUK’s membership ranges from small firms through to major players including Apple, Google and BAE Systems.

A 29-year-old paraplegic man successfully made the first kick at Arena Corinthians at the World Cup this summer.

Coleman’s presentation to the TechUK event included a slide that introduced the “digitally enabled officer of the future” as an area the agency is considering. The slide shows an image of a modern-day police officer with a robotic exoskeleton fitted to the officer’s knees designed for “power generation” to help them chase criminals. An experimental version of similar technology featured in the opening ceremony of the football World Cup in June at which a paraplegic man used a robotic suit to kick a football.

The slide also showed examples of a range of equipment that could be issued with in future including a camera, “wearable computing” (such as a smart watch) and what appear to be Google Glass-type spectacles designed to enhance “situational awareness”.

The latter term refers to officers being better informed about incidents on the ground before they arrive at the scene. One scenario could involve police at a large public event, for example, keeping abreast from public tweets or posted photos or video from cell phones. Likewise, images on Google Earth could give officers information about potential escape routes for suspects they are pursuing.

Google GlassThe Home Office wants wearable tech such as Google Glass. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

The police have tried to roll out devices such as BlackBerrys and handheld computers to frontline officers to increase efficiency and reduce bureaucracy. But so far, the results have been limited. In a report in 2012, the Public Accounts Committee said the £71m mobile information programme scheme had achieved savings of just £600,000.

Another priority area for research is graphene armour. Made from a sheet of single atoms arranged in a honeycomb structure, graphene is a thin, tough and very flexible material.

Less futuristically, the presentation features a body camera worn by the officer. This is already being trialled by police in London.

The drive for the police to harness new digital technology featured in the chancellor’s autumn statement this month. It said the technology heralded “new ways of working” and would reduce costs and delay: “For example, police should be able to capture evidence digitally at the scene of a crime, uploading case information using mobile devices without needing to return to the police station.”

Some observers have sounded a note of caution about the drive towards digitally enhanced policing though.

Colin Rogers, a former police inspector who is now a professor of police sciences at the University of South Wales, said there were potential upsides and downsides: “While officers might traditionally have to return to the station to fill in forms or do paperwork – in future we might see technology that allows them for example to take finger prints on the street and file reports from there, enabling them to stay active and remain more visible.”

But he added: “There has been a problem perhaps with some forces in that they are beginning to look almost paramilitary. That, I think, is not conducive to good community engagement. The additional changes in looks that come with technology might in some cases ‘harden’ that look.”

Coleman’s presentation was a pitch to technology companies before the official unveiling on Thursday of the Home Office’s new Security Innovation and Demonstration Centre (SIDC) in Sussex. It is part of a wider Security Export Strategy launched by the home secretary in February as part of efforts to boost exports of UK-made security and defence products to overseas markets.

The centre is intended to bring together government, industry and academia to carry out research as well as showcase the UK’s current and future policing capabilities in supposedly realistic environments. It includes a mocked-up “neighbourhood policing scene” and a “serious crime scene”, to demonstrate the benefits of various technologies.

At the launch, minister for organised crime, Karen Bradley, said that since 2010, the security industry has grown five times faster than the UK economy as a whole and is worth around £8bn, with exports accounting for about 40% of that.

Met police officers are trialling body-worn video cameras in London.

Met police officers are trialling body-worn video cameras in London. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Bradley’s department this year set aside £19m from a government “innovation fund” for projects that support police forces to improve their digital capabilities. Bidding for funding from next year’s fund closes in January.

Steve Barry, assistant chief constable at Sussex police, said at the launch that technology would allow police officers to become more effective, such as through being able to provide “digital evidence” throughout the criminal justice system. He added that work had started through the SIDC on enhancing body-worn video technology.

The Home Office declined a request for an interview with Coleman about the presentation.

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