Photo: Reuters
JOHANNESBURG - Last week I wrote on the magnificent potential of drone technology and how it is used in agriculture to monitor vegetative health; deliver defibrillators to people in cardiac arrest in remote areas; fight corruption or assist government agencies and first responders during natural disasters.

It has been proven that drones resulted in a 55 percent increase in safety on construction sites; delivered 5500 units of blood in the mountainous Rwanda during 2017; saved numerous lives all over the world; cut surveying time for a five hectare property 98 percent to 2 hours; allowed farmers to inspect about 1000 hectares of farmland in one day; and increase the selling time of homes with 68percent due to aerial pictures taken by a drone.

No doubt, drone technology has brought many benefits and its commercial use will increase exponentially in the coming years.

But despite the obvious benefits, the general public still harbour many concerns about drones with regard to privacy, safety, security, and public nuisance.

This distrust is fuelled by incidents such as the Gatwick Airport incident in December last year. The runway of this UK airport had to be closed for nearly three days due to numerous sightings of drones during the extremely busy festive season.

The results were that more than 120000 passengers and 800 flights were affected. It spread to other countries with travellers trapped in airports and aircraft on the tarmac, callously disrupting their holiday plans and family meetings over the festive season.

Two weeks later, Heathrow airport was temporarily shut down due to a drone in its airspace.

At the start of the year, Durban had a drone flying dangerously close to King Shaka Airport.

Not only have aircraft incidents involving drones increased exponentially, but also the use of drones for spying. In fact there are some drone models available on the market that are recommended for spying operations. As drones become increasingly smaller and cheaper, spying becomes easier.

Spy drones can be good for a neighbourhood watch to make residential areas safer or by law enforcement to follow a suspected criminal. The SAPS has started using drones to monitor criminals and gangs without them necessarily knowing it.

Unfortunately, spy drones could also be used for spying on a neighbour, any other person or company.

These so-called “peeping drones” can disturb the peace and sanctity of your private home and can even take a video of very private moments through bedroom and bathroom windows.

Camera-equipped drones in the hands of the wrong person have become a real danger to people's privacy.

In Tipperary, Ireland, a syndicate used drones to spy on homes before breaking in. The drones were used for aerial surveillance and to check for routes in and out of the premises.

The German football club Werder Bremen have used a drone to spy on the evening training sessions of Bundesliga rivals Hoffenheim.

Despite the spying, Werder did not win against Hoffenheim!

Until now most drones looked and operated like traditional aircraft and helicopters. But this may be changing as new insect-size bio-inspired drone technology is developed.

For instance, Animal Dynamics, a spin-off from Oxford University, created the dragonfly-inspired “Skeeter,” an autonomous drone the size of a pen intended for military reconnaissance. This was no easy achievement since the company had to overcome the issues of lift generation and gust tolerance. Engineers are working to increase the flight time, robustness and operating lifetime of the Skeeter.

In the US, Flir Systems, a company that develops thermal imaging, surveillance and navigation technologies, has been contracted by the US Army to develop the Black Hornet Personal Reconnaissance System (PRS).

The Black Hornet is a drone small enough to fit in the palm of a soldier's hand and will provide photos and video feeds to soldiers on the ground who need surveillance capabilities.

On the other side of the “pond,” researchers at the Micro Air Vehicle Lab of Delft University, in collaboration with Wageningen University, developed the DelFly camera-equipped flapping wing Micro Air Vehicle or Ornithopter.

The micro drones - all equipped with a camera and video transmitter - vary from the DelFly micro with a 10cm wingspan and a weight of 3.07 grams to the somewhat larger tailless flapping wing DelFly Nimble, which can perform high-speed manoeuvres such as 360-degree flips by mimicking the extremely fast escape manoeuvres of fruit flies.

In China, 30 military and government agencies are using drones that look like doves to keep a tab on their citizens from the sky. The drones can fly high enough to look like a normal bird, are almost silent, and even flap their wings.

The drones are, for example, used in the “autonomous” Xinjiang region to keep tabs on the Uyghur people who are apparently not so happy with the new borders.

So next time when you see a suspicious looking dove, dragonfly or insect, be vigilant. They may just be spying on you!

Professor Louis Fourie is the deputy vice-chancellor: knowledge & information technology - Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

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