Police minister Damian Green has backed the use of controversial unmanned drones to patrol the UK's skies, to monitor criminal activity and provide air support.
The Home Office minister said that remotely controlled drones in the UK's skies should be treated like "any other piece of police kit."
But civil liberties campaigners have argued the lifting of UK restrictions on drones could "eliminate the difference between public and private space" and warned such technology could be used by private companies.
Green was speaking at launch of a new National Police Air Service (NPAS). He said: "Where it's appropriate or proportionate to use them then we will look at using them.
"But they need to be treated the same as any other piece of police equipment or police activity.
"They should only be used when it's appropriate and proportionate to do so."
Chief Constable Alex Marshall, who is leading the NPAS scheme for the Association of Chief Police Officers, has said the service should start looking towards drones that can stay in the air longer and would be cheaper than running manned aircraft.
Drones are not currently used for "mainstream policing", Marshall said, but they "may well offer something for the future."
"They can stay up longer, they're cheaper, they can do things that you can't do having people in the air.
Police minister Damian Green has backed a potential expansion of the use of police drones
"But the Civil Aviation Authority, for example, doesn't allow the use of drones out of line of sight, and there are other restrictions on using them.
"Plus the debate that still needs to be had - it might be cost-effective, you might be able to keep it up longer, but is it acceptable to the citizens of the UK to have them in the air?
"Within line of sight they've been used by police and fire for just monitoring a building or whatever it might be.
"We should be looking at different ways of providing air support in the future that don't involve putting humans up in the air, but the public need to find it acceptable and it needs to be within the law."
Chris Cole, who runs drone monitoring site Drone Wars UK, told The Huffington Post UK: "Currently there are severe restrictions on how police drones can be used.
"They've been tested by several forces and they have said the restrictions are too severe for them to be used, and it's not practical.
"Merseyside Police's drone crashed into the River Mersey, and they've said they have no plans to replace it.
"The Civil Aviation Authority currently won't give permission to use them in UK airspace. But regulation could change by around 2016, we believe."
Emma Carr deputy director of privacy and civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch said: “The police and the Home Office appear to be wilfully ignoring all the evidence about how ineffective CCTV is at stopping crime and the serious civil liberties questions about how these machines could be abused.
“The regulation of drones appears dangerously lax where they do not weigh enough to be covered by the main air rules, something it appears those selling drones are keen to exploit.
"We need clear rules that establish what drones can be used and why, before we see our skies littered with flying cameras.
“It was only a matter of time before we saw military hardware re-designed to be used in civilian environments when there is no clear pressing reason to do so, other than the profits of the companies involved.”
Cold told The Huffington Post UK it was crucial that there are proper debates on privacy and civil liberties if police are to use drones.
"As well as looking at the technology and regulations, there must be a serious debate on privacy, and we're calling for a parliamentary debate on the issue.
"We are one of the most surveilled people, and people of the UK are pretty unhappy about being watched.
"Drones could come into our gardens and homes, they can eliminate the difference between private and public space.
"That's a huge issue. It's also possible drones could be bought and used by private companies if restrictions are lifted."
The new police helicopter service will have fewer bases and fewer helicopters, but Green insisted the new arrangements would provide a better service for the public.
The national air service will have 26 helicopters running from 23 bases and it is estimated that the cost of running air support will fall from around £63m to around £48m.
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