The case for drone technology in securing goods-in-transit

The director of UAV Aerial Works, a South African drone services provider, believes drone technology can deliver peace of mind to the highway crimes conundrum facing law enforcement authorities and most security companies in the country.

Based in Johannesburg, Gauteng Province, UAV Aerial Works offers drone-based aerial security surveillance, among other services like engineering, survey and mapping; and agriculture, to its clients; and its director Kim James, believes there is no reason to stop security companies from engaging the services of drones as a preventive measure against crimes like cash-in-transit heists.

“Drones can help of course,” says James. “Applications like creating ‘safe corridors’ for high value loads in transit, like cash or shipping containers landing at a sea port and being transported along highways inland. The ideal situation would be to patrol said safe corridor ahead of and following the vehicle from departure to destination.”

James’ sentiments come hot on the heels of the latest cash-in-transit robbery, that happened on Monday, August 17, in the suburban area of Esther Park in Kempton Park, Ekurhuleni. About twenty robbers swarmed on the cash truck, blew it up and made off with their loot before the police and backup crew reacted. After this latest robbery, questions were raised on whether drone technology might have been useful in at least tracking the fleeing suspects and updating their location to authorities.

James did acknowledge that there might currently be teething issues with drone use in South Africa, with drone regulations as they are currently, and the cost of incorporating wholesome drone services into the security matrix for company transporting high value loads.  

“Patrol areas for high value loads are usually highways, and getting permission to fly over roads and residential areas is a real challenge, regardless of how urgent the need might be. We have tried, and been bumped from one municipal department to the next until we gave up.

“The same story applies about acquiring images and surveying an area.”

But where such hurdles have been scaled, the process of surveillance has been smooth-sailing, as it was when pilot tests were made along the N3, the South Africa national freeway that connects Johannesburg to the port city of Durban.

“We have tried a safe corridor drone programme for the N3 from sea port to land port, flying in zones to create a patrol persistent surveillance system (PPS),” she says. “The challenge, is who pays for the service? The roads agency? The Insurance Company? Or freight forwarders?”

Kim James

With James raising concern about municipal by-laws and drone regulations, questions should be asked about whether the said municipalities care about getting detailed maps of their localities, not least because they wish to improve service delivery; of which security should be one of the topmost areas of concern to them.

Heico Kuhn, the Chief Operating Officer for the iGlobe Group says his organisation can recreate digital models of whole cities using a combination of drone imagery and computer software. Such reality modelling was instrumental in facilitating the safe visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia, USA, in September 2015. Then stakeholders on a mission to secure the Pope – including secret service officials, state agencies as well as the local church leaders – came together and used the technology of reality modelling to expedite the design and engineering of substantial temporary facilities for this high profile visit, while supporting the extreme security workflows required.

Local municipalities, security companies and the police can do the same when it comes to mapping out cities to mark dangerous places that need more attention when it comes to security.

Likewise, the same spirit of public good can work in favour of security companies and their clients, if they can all come to an understanding that the short- and long-term benefits of incorporating the right drones for the purpose surveying areas to be travelled will far outweigh the initial costs.

“A proper industrial drone made specifically for surveillance, which can operate day and night, with high-definition thermal imaging software and sufficient hang time (fixed wing fuel-driven system) can easily set a company back anything between $27,000 and $58,000. That is a lot. Couple that with personnel to operate the drone, accessory equipment, registration and regulation costs, and the cost is becomes an investment most security company cannot justify as yet.

“A cheaper option would be to patrol with a drone mounted with inferior thermal equipment, but then night capability becomes a challenge.”

While the authorities decide on the way forward, highway criminals continue to have a field day. According to statistics from the South African police Service, there were 164 cash-in-transit robberies between March 2019 and April 2020. Thirty-five of these were committed in the first two months of 2020. Add to that the 1,200 cases of truck hijackings, and the need for a new approach to road service has never been greater.

Drones can track suspects on wheels

“As a still emerging economy, investing in drone technology as a security measure may not make sense right now for some companies,” concedes James. “We still have people with scant understanding of what drone technology can do. They fully expect drones to autonomously fly to a crime scene and stop whatever crime is going at the triggered scene; so the industry has to manage those unrealistic expectations.

“Having said that, I still think the value of the assets security companies are charged with keeping safe is worth the expenses of drone technology. Convincing the clients, however, is another matter. Competition to win accounts is tough among security companies, and prospective clients often pick up the cheapest option available to them.”

“The reality is that drone patrols can offer valuable intelligence; for instance, through detection of suspicious activities and tracking of suspects, and providing live updates to ground troops, who will proceed with reliable information.”  

James expressed hope that the emerging Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) technology will help in integrate manned and unmanned traffic into the same airspace, with effective collision-avoidance systems that will allow for unmanned flights beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS).

“With BVLOS, you need to have radio line of sight and unless you have those safe corridors with extenders and perfect geography; flying, streaming footage and communication (with drone, with Air Traffic Control, with high value truck in transit and with control room) might a challenge.

“But all this can be solved.”


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