Drone technology and the protests in South Africa

It has been a trying few days for business owners, mainly in South African townships, who have had to helplessly watch as their business premises got torched or ransacked amid massive protests across the country that have claimed at least 72 lives and seen over a thousand people arrested.

And unfortunately, as things stand, there is nothing that drone technology can do to adequately help the situation, without the presence of prior structures already in place to respond to such emergencies.

At least that is the view of Kim James, the Director of Drone Guards, a UAV Aerial Works company that specialises in providing drone-based solutions for the protection of high value assets in South Africa.

Protesters – allegedly incensed at the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma – have been pouring into the streets of South Africa, burning and looting many shopping malls, commercial premises and other infrastructure in the process, especially in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu Natal and in Gauteng.

President Zuma handed himself to police near midnight on July 7, after he was found to be in contempt of court and sentenced to a fifteen-month jail term for refusing to appear before a government-appointed commission that was investigating allegations of corruption during his nine-year tenure as president.

Now 79, Zuma served as South Africa’s president from 2009 until his resignation on Valentine’s Day in 2018.

Brookside Mall in Pietermaritzburg was set on fire

The former president’s supporters have not taken kindly to his incarceration; hence they have resorted to massive violent protests around the country; and it has been during these protests that businesses in townships have been raided and burned. Shopping malls, warehouses and other businesses in and around townships have lost their wares, which include food stuffs, furniture, clothes, liquor, money and household appliances.

Already understaffed, the police service has been overwhelmed by the looting wave; and reinforcements have had to be called in from the army.

In such a situation, desperate as it is, James reckons it would be unwise to call in the drones if no prior infrastructure had been in place to activate drone technology in case of emergency crowd problems of the magnitude seen in South Africa in the past two days.

“A number of security companies and role players have been in contact with us to deploy (the company drones and drone personnel) to volatile sites,” James said. “Here is an honest response… (the short answer is no).

“Can we deploy at short notice? Yes. However, consider the complexity of the mission, safety of the drone crew, availability of effective communication channels between ground crew and law enforcement in the first instance.

“(Would this be) the most effective way to deploy aerial cover? No.”

In a hypothetical situation, unmanned aerial vehicles fitted with the right aerial imaging equipment might have been flown to the protest hotspots and done a good job remotely monitoring and tracking people’s movements at the protests. Facial recognition technology could also have been mounted, so the security authorities could identify ring leaders, before deploying on-foot patrol personnel, who will approach the situation with enough details on what to expect and what the proper course of action would be.

Similarly, when equipped with communication interception technologies, drones can be used to monitor and track protestors’ calls and messages, in and around the area where a protest is taking place.

Drones equipped with public address systems may also be used to communicate with protesters, for example by giving them orders, instructions or warnings.

But according to James, for all this to work, the response systems that incorporate the drones have to be already in place, as haphazard, out of turn drone deployments would put drone crews in mortal danger. As she points out, without proper and prior coordination and cooperation from security stakeholders and aviation authorities, the operations will most likely to suffer, if only for the single fact that it would not be clear who will be doing what on the scene.

People would end up stepping onto each other’s toes, rendering their efforts ineffective.

Perhaps spontaneous drone deployments might work with natural disaster emergencies whose progression would be predictable; but there is simply no accounting of what a human mind can do.

“It’s so easy for people to ask for drones to support the ground teams,” James says. “But many people forget that, while a drone provides eyes in the sky, in order for the technology to be effective, it still requires effective communication between drone crew and ground crew.

“You will be surprised how many times we see ground crews without any radio communication.”

At the time of writing, official sources have confirmed that 72 people have died as a result of the protests, with many dying from being trampled on the ground as people stampeded in and out of shops to loot commodities. But to buttress James’ point on prior preparation, among the dead was a member of the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD), who was shot as police clashed with protesters in the city.

In Durban, a mother had to save her child by literally throwing it into the hands of helpers on the ground from the first-floor balcony of a burning building.

Even as she appreciates the gravity of the matter, James figures the risks of sending in drone crews without proper drills beforehand are just too great in such cases.

“(My advice) to the security industry is; build your unmanned air force before it’s needed in an emergency. Your ground teams will be trained to work with the drone crew. Your drone drew will be specifically trained to operate to your SOPs; and the crew will also know most of the assets and areas you operate in and will therefore provide effective air cover for your ground teams immediately.”

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