LONDON      -    Police Scotland has unveiled a new aerial drone system to help in searches for missing and vulnerable people.

The remotely-piloted aircraft system (RPAS) can see things we can’t to try to work out where people are.

It uses advanced cameras and neural computer networks to spot someone it is looking for - from “a speck” up to 150 metres away.

Its recognition software is compact enough to be run on a phone, with the technology learning as it goes.

“The drone itself has very special sensors on it,” said Insp Nicholas Whyte, of Police Scotland’s air support unit.

“There’s a very highly-powered optical camera which can allow us to see things quite clearly from a good height. Also, there’s a thermal imaging sensor which detects heat.

The system is the result of a collaboration involving Police Scotland, the technology multinational Thales and the University of the West of Scotland (UWS).

The matchmaker in the partnership is CENSIS, one of Scotland’s eight not-for-profit innovation centres.

The CENSIS remit is to bring together private businesses and the public sector to exploit advances in sensing, imaging and the so-called Internet of Things.

Drones are an increasingly common sight. Outwardly, this one looks no different apart from - almost inevitably - a flashing blue light.

But the data this drone gathers is processed in real time. The software can discern a person, animal or vehicle from just a handful of pixels in a huge moving colour image.

Prof Carl Schaschke, dean of the School of Computing, Engineering and Physical Sciences at UWS, said it could spot someone from up to 150 metres away.

“It does that by being shown images, multiple images, time and time again until it recognises what the objects are from pretty much any orientation,” he said.

The term artificial intelligence may conjure up images of Terminator-like thinking robots.

But in this case it means a machine that can learn.

The team taught it using hundreds of hours of footage of police officers in different clothing, positions and situations.

And there’s another breakthrough.

“It doesn’t require sophisticated supercomputing,” Prof Schaschke said.

“It really is quite a low-cost approach to this - it simply uses a mobile phone.”

A search needs just two police officers to operate it: one to fly the drone, the other to use the recognition software.