The Orwellian use of non-lethal weapons that can have deadly results just got another boost. A South African company called Desert Wolf (“Be Anywhere, See Everywhere”) has developed a drone called the Skunk Riot Control Copter which can be equipped with pepper spray and 4 high-capacity paint ball barrels to strafe the target crowd of protesters.
While this is the first announcement that states an intention to imminently deploy this type of weaponry, it is not the first of its type; non-lethal weapons-equipped drones have been in development for quite some time and are a hair’s breadth away from seeing action across the planet.
The widespread acceptance of pepper spray – a chemical weapon that is stated as such by the founder of the product – has found its way into the hands of police and military the world over. As an increasing number of locations become flashpoints for unrest among worsening economic conditions and manufactured conflicts, the evolution of non-lethal weapons continues to be touted as a more humane way to address uprisings. The global drone arms race and the proliferation of non-lethal weapons creates a tempting integration of both technologies.
The latest development is being spurred by South Africa’s largest strike since the Apartheid era. Platinum mine owners and unions have been in conflict for months, resulting in losses north of $1 Billion according to reports. Reports from the defense industry, however, conveniently ignore the socio-political and economic issues that might be resulting in legitimate protest. Rather, the workers in these clashes have been labeled simply as an “unruly crowd” which needs to be suppressed for the safety of “security staff.”
The Riot Control Copter’s description doesn’t sound like safety is its first priority; it sounds like punishment is.
The Skunk is equipped with 4 high-capacity paint ball barrels firing at up to 20 bullets per second each, with 80 Pepper bullets per second stopping any crowd in
The current hopper capacity of 4000 bullets and High Pressure Carbon Fiber Air system it allows for real stopping power. Bright strobe lights, blinding Lasers and with on-board speakers enables communication and warnings to the crowd. [emphasis added] (Source)
The new weapon in crowd management was revealed at a security exhibition. Defence Web reports that this model of anti-protest drone will likely see action beyond the current conflict zone, while acknowledging the risk for abuse that such detachment from those on the ground could engender:
A camera and microphone on the operator’s station records the operators (a pilot and payload operator) so their behaviour can be monitored. Hennie Kieser, Director of Desert Wolf, said people tend to be less aggressive when they are monitored.Desert Wolf will soon deliver the first 25 units to customers in the mining industry and the UAV will enter service around June/July. Kieser said it was sad that the mines are in a predicament with strike related violence and this is why the mines are the biggest market for the system. A full system including cameras, ground control station etc. will cost around R500 000.
Kieser said Desert Wold will definitely export the Skunk into Africa, primarily for mining operations, and that South African success will lead to other orders. He felt the best market is not in South Africa because of the current legislation restricting drone use.
“I don’t think there’s anything like that in the world,” Kieser told defenceWeb regarding the made in South Africa UAV.
Desert Wolf also offers other UAVs, including the Mozzy, a multicopter for darting game. A live video link enables the operator to monitor the target animal. The company also offers the Wasp helicopter for day and night surveillance. [emphasis added] (Source)
Actually, the merging of non-lethal weapons and drones is not exactly new. While there has been pushback, in 2012 it was announced that the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office near Houston, Texas would be acquiring a ShadowHawk surveillance drone. Police Chief Randy McDaniel was excited about other applications:
On the topic of tacking a tear gas dispenser or a firearm that shoots non-lethal rubber bullets, McDaniel says it could eventually be an idea the department decides to go with.
“Those are things that law enforcement utilizes day in and day out and in certain situations it might be advantageous to have this type of system on the UAV.” [emphasis added] (Source)
In July of last year it emerged that the Department of Homeland Security U.S. border control was considering non-lethal weaponized drones used to “immobilize people.”
The documents, obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation through a Freedom of Information Act request, show the CPB suggesting in a “law enforcement sensitive” report to Congress that its drones could be upgraded to include the weapons to shoot at “targets of interest.” The documents do not detail specific weapons, but “non-lethal” rounds deployed on drones could feasibly include rubber bullets, tear gas, or a Taser-like shock. [emphasis added] (Source)
For now, such implementation has not happened, but when one sees the growing outrage over the current U.S. immigration crisis threatening to spiral completely out of control, might this be more easily embraced as a “solution”? Once the precedent is set, as it appears it will be in South Africa, there is only one direction where this can can lead.
While the situation in South Africa is assuredly a complex one, if the use of weaponized drones and non-lethal weapons elsewhere is any guide, their use is likely to cause additional injuries, death and conflict, not less. And when that is part of the business model? It is all but guaranteed.
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