Drones are the latest buzzword. They're technologically advanced enough that we can marvel at their powers, but also surrounded by so much controversy that we fear their potential. From Amazon’s ridiculous and unlikely courier bots to military-grade Predators and Reapers that have already claimed thousands of lives in the Middle East and Pakistan, the media buzz surrounding drones can make discerning the genuine dangers lurking amidst innocent advancements tricky.
The latest development in remote-controlled aircraft is nothing new, technologically-speaking. “The Skunk” – as the South African makers, Desert Wolf, affectionately refer to their highly-armed robot – appears to be a simple mishmash of four paintball guns, an HD video camera and a light-and-sound system, all sitting atop an eight-bladed mini-helicopter. It's the world's first drone aimed at the riot control market.
Admittedly, it’s a little more complicated than that – the drones are linked up to a ground control station and are equipped with a variety of high-tech gadgets ranging from thermal cameras to strobe lights. But the real danger lies more in its applications than its circuitry. A single operator can control an entire formation of Skunks, which can be outfitted with more damaging ammunition. Each barrel is capable of firing up to 20 rounds per second and the paintballs can be easily replaced by pepper spray ammo or even solid plastic bullets. Desert Wolf claims this makes it capable of “stopping any crowd in its tracks".
The company, who specialise in military and surveillance applications, says the “Skunk Riot Control Copter is designed to control unruly crowds without endangering the lives of the protestors or the security staff". The Pretoria-based firm unveiled the heavily-armed octocopter at the IFSEC security trade show in May. Though the purchaser of the riot police robot is yet to be named, director Henry Kiesser told the BBC “it will be used by an international mining house”.
The thought of a private company equipped with crowd control security robots is scary. Various workers’ rights groups have expressed fear the drones will be abused by unscrupulous firms and police forces to harass and attack civilians striking or protesting.
On the Desert Wolf website the manufacturers claim they just want to reduce the risks to police and protesters:
The system also has a number of safety systems and features. Desert Wolf will continue to improve the design and ensure a safe and reliable product. Our aim is to assist in preventing another Marikana, we were there and it should never happen again.”
The devastating 2012 Marikana massacre was the country’s single most deadly use of force on civilians since apartheid. 34 striking miners were mercilessly shot dead by South African security forces during a strike over low pay and poor working conditions. This wasn’t a stand-alone dispute between employees and police. The owners of the multi-million dollar platinum mine, Belgravia-based firm Lonmin, have been implicated in the deaths; senior officials, including the head of security and executive vice-president, are accused of petitioning police chiefs to take a hard line with protesters.
Desert Wolf claim a robot would be safer in such scenarios. Speaking to the Guardian, Kiesser said drone control is the best solution: "Anyone who was at Marikana would rather have this technology than live ammunition. People who say it's inhumane compared to 9mm bullets are idiotic."
Relative to killing people, merely wounding them with rubber bullets or pepper spray for daring to demand fair treatment might seem somehow reasonable - but, of course, it isn't. Solicitor James Nichols – who represents the families of the dead Marikana miners – told the Guardian the use of the drone was “absolutely outrageous”. “Using pepper spray like ammunition to scatter the crowd. People are entitled to be on strike. Who would make the decision? It's absurd."
A mining firm with 25 drones specifically designed to target its employees is immensely worrying, particularly as the ongoing strikes have lasted five months without a satisfactory end in sight and the families of the Marikana miners are still waiting for the conclusion of the official inquiry.
Even more perturbing is the huge interest in the drone from security personnel and police forces. Desert Wolf intends to export the product to other areas of Africa where legislation restricting drone use is weaker, and to run demonstration flights in Europe and America. Given the high degree of misuse and inaccuracy in the American military – the Brookings Institution estimates ten civilians are killed for each militant – the suggestion that these anti-riot robots could become ubiquitous is unsettling. Yet the Skunk claims to be different: Desert Wolf insist the drone system is both safe and accountable:
What makes the [ground control system] unique is the operator and his team are also under full video and audio surveillance. Every move, every decision, every command is recorded."
This may be (slightly) welcome news to civil liberties groups and trade unions, but the idea seems to be unique to the Skunk. Without laws stipulating this as a requirement for all civilian-targeting drones, protesters will forever be at risk from drone-controllers' blasé attitudes to targeting civilians.
In addition, this ignores the growing trend to remove humans from the decision making process in combat drone use. Speaking at the Convention on Conventional Weapons, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said:
The increasing involvement of a pre-programmed machine in several steps of the targeting and attacking process further blurs the question of who is accountable when something goes wrong. Clear accountability is essential to upholding the laws and norms of international humanitarian law."
Accountability was dispensed with over Marikana, where almost three hundred miners were charged with the murder of their fellow strikers. Private firms with poor human rights track records are the last people who should be entrusted with such dangerous technology.