A worryingly flippant advert for a riot control drone. Photo: screenshot of "the Skunk" from Desert Wolf's website
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South African mining firm is the first to purchase riot control drone

The first purchase orders have been made for the Skunk Riot Control Copter, a terrifying unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) equipped with paintballs, pepper spray and blinding flashlights.

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.

Artie Limmer/Texas Tech University
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Meet the evangelical Christian persuading believers that climate change is real

Katharine Hayhoe's Canadian missionary parents told her science and God were compatible. Then she moved to Texas. 

During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, alarm rose with each mention of climate change. Denial, dismissal and repeated chants of “hoax” left no doubt as to his position.

Now President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has been seen as a seminal moment in the fight against climate change - one which many fear could lose the battle ahead of humanity.

But one scientist has been fighting a war of her own on the ground, against those who typically doubt the facts about global warming more than most - the evangelical Christian population of America.

And to make matters even more unusual, Katharine Hayhoe herself is an evangelical Christian who lives in the indisputably "bible belt" of Lubbock, Texas.

The atmospheric scientist has been named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people and one of Politico’s 50 thinkers transforming American politics. Now she is using her considerable heft to speak to those who are hardest to convince that there is a manmade problem that threatens the Earth’s future.

I meet her at the science and music festival Starmus in Trondheim, Norway, where she is to address the attendees on Thursday in a talk entitled "Climate Change: Facts and Fictions".

Hayhoe was born in Canada, to missionary parents. Her father, a former science educator, showed her that there was no conflict between the ideas of God and science. However, it was something of a surprise to her when she discovered her pastor husband, whom she married in 2000, did not feel the same about climate change. It took her two years to convince him.

What started as a conversation became an organised project when she moved to America's South in the mid 2000s. 

“Moving to Lubbock was a culture shock," she tells me. "When I moved there I wasn’t doing much outreach, but it moved me in that direction.

“Lubbock is very conservative. It’s small and isolated.

“I would say the majority of people in Lubbock are either dismissive or doubtful about climate change. I was surrounded by people - neighbours, parents of friends, people at church, colleagues down the hall in the university - who weren’t convinced.”

So Hayhoe, who works as an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University, set to work. She began to collect the responses she was seeing to the climate change discussion and prepare her counter-argument.

“When I talk to people who are doubtful, I try to connect with the values they already have," she says. “The greatest myth is the myth of complacency - that ‘it doesn’t really matter to me’.

"But I would say that the second most insidious myth is that you only care about this issue if you’re a certain type of person. If you’re a green person, or a liberal person, or a granola person."

The stereotypes mean that people outside that demographic feel "I can't be that kind of person because that's not who I am", as she puts it.

Hayhoe convinced her husband using data, but rather than repeating a formula, she tries to find out what will resonate with different people: "For many groups, faith is a core value that people share.”

Whether she’s speaking to city planners, water company managers, school kids or Bible believers, Hayhoe says her hook is not the facts, but the feelings.

“I recently talked to arborists," she says. "For them, trees and plants are important, so I connect with them on that, and say ‘because we care about trees, or because we care about water or what the Bible says then let me share with you from the heart why I can about these issues because it affects something that you already care about’.

“My angle is to show people that they don’t need to be a different person at all - exactly who they already are is the kind of person who can care about climate change.”

Hayhoe came to public attention in the United States after appearing in a Showtime series on climate change. She has appeared on panels with Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio, and launched a web series. As well as plaudits, this level of fame has also earned her daily threats and online abuse. 

“My critics think they’re coming from a position of religion, but they aren’t," she says. "They’re actually coming from a very specific political ideology which believes that the government should not have control over people’s lives in any way shape or form - very libertarian, free market, free economy, Tea Party."

She believes that in the United States, faith and politics has been conflated to the point "people can no longer tell the difference". 

“Now it’s conservatism that informs religion," she elaborates. "If the two are in conflict - like the Bible says God has given us responsibility over everything on this earth - then people say ‘oh, we can’t affect something as big as this Earth, God will take care of it anyway’."

Around half of those who attack her on social media identify themselves as Christians, she notes, but almost all call themselves conservatives. 

As a scientist, she’s been preparing data herself - naturally - on her online attackers, with depressingly familiar results.

“As soon as you stick your head out of the trench, you get it. There have been papers published showing that white men disproportionately form up that small group of dismissives. They’re almost all men. When I track my social media comments, I would say that 99.5 per cent of them are white men.

“Out of 1,000 negative comments, I have maybe five from women.”

After the climate change argument moved up a gear - following the Paris withdrawal - Hayhoe admits that she and her fellow scientists are concerned, although she pays tribute to the businesses, cities and states from the US that have committed to following the Paris agreement themselves.

On the subject of the chief white male denier, Trump himself, Hayhoe says she has a discussion point which she feels may convince him to think carefully about his role in the fight against global warming’s impact on humanity.

“I would attempt to connect with the values that he has and show him how acting on this would be in his best interests," she says.

“One guess would be ‘what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want to be known as, the man who destroyed the world, or the man who saved it?’”

Katharine Hayhoe is speaking at Starmus on Thursday June 22. For more details, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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