Drone with pepper spray offered for strike control in South Africa

South African firm says it has begun supplying drones to mining company

Striking workers at the gates of the Marikana mine in 2012. Desert Wolf claims it wants to help in “preventing another Marikana” – a reference to the strike during which 34 mineworkers were shot and killed during clashes with the police. Photograph: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Striking workers at the gates of the Marikana mine in 2012. Desert Wolf claims it wants to help in “preventing another Marikana” – a reference to the strike during which 34 mineworkers were shot and killed during clashes with the police. Photograph: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Sat, Jun 21, 2014, 01:00

A South African company has built a drone designed to shower pepper spray on unruly crowds and says it has begun supplying units to an international mining company.

Desert Wolf claims it wants to help in “preventing another Marikana” – a reference to a protest in August 2012 at which 34 striking mineworkers were shot and killed during clashes with the police.

But the Skunk Riot Control Copter was condemned by labour activists as “absolutely outrageous” and compared with deadly US military drones in Pakistan.

Desert Wolf is marketing the 500,000 rand (€34,500) machine, unveiled at a recent trade show, as “designed to control unruly crowds without endangering the lives of the protesters or the security staff”.

It says the Skunk boasts eight electric motors with 16-inch propellers, lifting 45kg and carrying 4,000 pepper-spray paintballs, plastic balls or other “non-lethal” ammunition. The device is equipped with four barrels firing up to 20 balls per second each, which could equate to 80 pepper balls per second “stopping any crowd in its tracks”.

The firm’s website states: “The operator has full control over each marker. He can select the red paint marker and mark the protester who carries dangerous weapons, he can select the blue marker to mark the vandalising protestors and if needed the pepper balls to stop the advancing crowd before they get into a ‘life-threatening situation’.”

Blinding lasers The Skunk is also fitted with bright strobe lights, “blinding lasers” and on

board speakers to enable communication and warnings to the crowd. It has a thermal camera and high-definition video camera with onboard recording.

Desert Wolf said: “Our aim is to assist in preventing another Marikana; we were there and it should never happen again.”

On a single afternoon in Marikana, police gunned down 34 striking mineworkers in the bloodiest act by security forces since the end of racial apartheid in 1994. The killings are the subject of an ongoing commission of inquiry.

Hennie Kieser, managing director of Desert Wolf, said he was flying drones at Marikana at the time as part of the surveillance operation.

“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,” he said.

He said an international mining house had ordered 25 of the unmanned aerial vehicles but he is not permitted to disclose its identity, or say where it operates. There is also interest from mining and security companies in South Africa and beyond, he said. Current aviation rules in South African prevent the drones being deployed but he hopes the legislation can be changed.

There was an immediate backlash against the technology. James Nichol, a British lawyer representing the families of dead strikers at Marikana, said: “It’s 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.

“One of the lessons of Marikana is that the state should stay out of industrial disputes. If they want people firing back at drones which then crash and hurt innocent people, be it on their heads. It’s disgraceful.”

Rehad Desai, spokesperson for the Marikana Support Campaign and director of a documentary film, Miners Shot Down, said: “The government are increasingly turning to authoritarian methods instead of dialogue and mediation. It’s to be expected that they would adopt such equipment to quell dissent. But the more violent the equipment, the more violent the reaction will be.”

– (Guardian service)