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

Sunday Times - - Insight - By SHANTHINI NAIDOO

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.

Hu­man move­ment

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.”

Pi­lots wanted

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.

Pic­ture: Alais­ter Rus­sell

FLOAT LIKE A BUT­TER­FLY Ge­orges Sayegh, a co-di­rec­tor of UAV & Drone So­lu­tions, and drone.

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