Don’t look up
Drones are fast becoming essential to the fight against crime, particularly in situations where the terrain and weaponry give criminals the advantage
An intruder has entered a prohibited area on a pitchdark night. Little does he know he is being watched, invisibly and silently, by a drone, 120m above, using a thermal infrared camera that picks up his body heat and movement.
Security gets an alert and within seconds a team arrives, sending another night-seeing eye — a dog — to intercept the trespasser.
This isn’t a crime movie or a futuristic simulation but real video footage from a mine outside Johannesburg.
South African companies and the government are using drones fitted with thermal cameras to combat crime.
The tech is in place on mines, at container depots, following trains and monitoring railway networks. Drones also do engineering and environmental checks on, among other things, vineyards and avocado plantations.
UAV & Drone Solutions, a local innovator in drone technology, was one of the first operators to be awarded a commercial licence, initially to track rhinos and reduce poaching. Co-directors Georges Sayegh, Robert Hannaford and Otto Werdmuller say drones will change our lives, and their focus has broadened beyond wildlife conservation.
Werdmuller says the technical applications are limitless. Medicine drops in danger zones, assisting in hostage situations . . . even pizza and online shopping deliveries will be revolutionised.
Braam Botha, head of operations at Cape Town-based UAV Industries, a commercial drone operator and drone pilot training academy, says that apart from wildlife surveillance his company has conducted night-vision security research for agricultural purposes and provided aerial security at live events — including shark-spotting at surfing contests.
But there are two impediments, says Werdmuller. “Legislation and safety. What is technically possible in an urban environment is unlimited. But our legislation is solid. Privacy is controlled. The safety issues include that a drone is heavy machinery, and it can fall out of the sky and hurt people. So no, they won’t be flying around like mosquitoes in the near future. Invasiveness is a massive issue and people who operate drones as a hobby are not always responsible with this technology.”
In the company workshop, Sayegh shows off new rotor blades that have just arrived. These will give the drone more flight time. The previous blades were heavier and double the size.
“Small and light electric-powered drones, especially fixed-wing aircraft, make little noise and are often birdshaped, meaning animals on the ground are rarely disturbed by these tools, if they notice them at all,” says Sayegh.
Criminals are equally unaware.
After running antipoaching drone operations in the Kruger Park, KwaZulu-Natal, Malawi and Botswana, the trio were approached by a large mining company that was sustaining major losses from crime.
Werdmuller says people behave differently under the cover of darkness, which is why drones are so valuable in stopping criminals.
“One of our mining sites had 160 extra security staff at night, to protect their infrastructure in a 26km radius. After the drones came in, they have reduced 150 crimes a month to less than 1% and have eight reaction staff,” he said.
The team uses software that can detect movement via thermal imaging, and which discerns human and animal movement in the dark.
The drones are remotely operated by qualified pilots, teamed up with a sensor operator who receives an alert if there is any activity on the ground. The ground staff are a security detail. Some are so reliant on the technology in high-risk areas that they ask for drone cover before operating on foot at night.
Drone pilots are in high demand in South Africa and around the world. Apart from a licence to operate an aircraft, they need special training and hours on the drone controls.
To counteract human error, such as fatigue and drowsiness, there is artificial intelligence.
“Monitoring the live video stream from the UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] all night is an arduous task,” says Sayegh. “We have built a video-monitoring application that allows us to analyse real-time video by applying stateof-the-art AI techniques to address the challenges of automatically detecting activity.
“We have trained a neural network to find both animals and humans. This allows the operator to rely on the application to alert the team to poachers’ positions without a person having to stare at a video monitor for hours on end.”
In Cape Town, cable theft and criminal activity have reduced train usage to a third of the rail network’s capacity. But with drones now monitoring the railway, there are arrests almost every day. The city estimates it will save millions while protecting rail commuters, assets and infrastructure.
“You can imagine the problem with monitoring thousands of kilometres of railway line. If there is a bottleneck, you lose passenger time and delivery time,” says Werdmuller.
Construction sites are also targets for theft, and a drone programme is being piloted in Gauteng to curb losses.
“The drones can go into container yards which are war zones — people were being shot and killed by gangs of armed criminals trying to get into storage facilities. Now the drones are saving lives,” says Werdmuller. “The security teams went from being very exposed and being shot at to having air support that can tell them what they can’t see at night. They won’t operate without the drone watching now.”
Will drones replace humans? No, because they need trained pilots with flying hours, and there aren’t enough of those, says Sayegh.
Werdmuller says the manned aviation industry is on the decline and drone operators may outnumber airline pilots in the next year.
“Pilots need flying hours, which they can’t always get. We need five new pilots a month.”
It is a new, niche career.
Drones are categorised as aircraft and are therefore integrated into the existing manned aviation sector and civil airspace. Until July 2015, the flying of any unmanned aircraft was illegal in South Africa.
There are about 800 registered commercial drones with just under 30 active remote-operating certificates — a certification issued by the South African Civil Aviation Authority that is needed for legal commercial use.
Stringent regulations were set up by the authority in response to a growing demand to regulate the sector. These rules cover where drones may fly and how far away they are allowed to be from the operator.
All drone users need to follow these rules, but only pilots using the drones for commercial purposes need a licence.
Failure to abide by the rules could earn the violator a 10-year prison sentence, or a fine of R50 000, or both.
Professor Anthony Minnaar, a security science expert at Unisa, says there are still laws restricting the crime-fighting capacity of drones.
“Drones have great potential in security,” he says. “They are far cheaper than using a helicopter, for instance. But commercial drones are not allowed in residential areas. Private security companies cannot use drones with the current legislation in place. There are restrictions on both hobbyists and commercial pilots about flying near airports, private residences and cars. The privacy issues have to do with surveillance and the use of video material in court, which has not been legally resolved yet.”
He says the fine print will be worked out in time, as it has in the US, where a bill has been submitted to Congress regarding privacy and drones.
FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY Georges Sayegh, a co-director of UAV & Drone Solutions, and drone.