The Skunk Riot Control Copter is designed to control unruly crowds without endangering the lives of the protesters or security staff. Picture: Supplied

Johannesburg - A Pretoria business is building unmanned drones with lasers and lights which fire pepper spray to make crowd control safer.

The Skunk Riot Control Copter has full onboard recording, live video transmission over 5km, paintball markers, night vision, “pulsating blinding lasers” and strobe lights, and fires 80 pepper-spray bullets per second to stop a crowd in its tracks.

It sounds terrifying, but the intention is to save lives.

Hennie Kieser- of Desert Wolf, based in Pretoria - was so horrified by the August 2012 Marikana massacre that he decided to build something which would make crowd control safer for security personnel and protesters.

“We knew that our focus should be on using our technology and design capability to assist in making sure that such a disaster never happens again.”

Kieser had been doing surveillance for the police at the Lonmin mine at Marikana, flying a Desert Wolf Bateleur fixed-wing unmanned drone aircraft. It’s that day that led to the Skunk.

Kieser had received an urgent call asking him to bring a Bateleur to Marikana.

“It was a very tense day for all. The police and security personnel were discussing how their colleagues were brutally murdered during the previous days in broad daylight, and how the crowd was getting more violent and uncontrollable,” said Kieser.

His team flew the Bateleur, capturing video footage. After he had left, the shooting happened.

“We then left the mine and were a few kilometres away when we heard the terrible news over the radio. It was a shock and very horrible,” he said.

“On my way back to my factory, I told my wife Henriette that there must be a better and safer way to manage such a situation. We then started the idea of developing the Skunk. Now, nearly two years later, the Skunk is ready for production, and the industry has seen the massive benefits.”

Desert Wolf has sold or got orders for about 40 units so far, with customers in Africa in security, mining and industry.

None of the units have been sold in South Africa yet, due to legal issues around aviation licensing for drones, but Kieser is working with the SA Civil Aviation Authority on the licensing, and South African customers are queueing up.

“We have requests from 17 different entities that urgently want to see a product demonstration.”

The units cost R480 000 each.

The Skunk has “four high-capacity paintball barrels firing at up to 20 bullets per second each, with 80 pepper bullets per second stopping any crowd in its tracks”, the specifications state.

“Bright strobe lights, blinding lasers and onboard speakers enables communication and warnings to the crowd.”

Kieser said the user can load the Skunk with different coloured paint and pepper-spray balls.

“He can decide to just use red paint for troublemakers, blue paint for people with dangerous weapons on them, and then use the pepper balls to hit the ground in front of the advancing crowd.”

Kieser said the Skunk includes the safety features of auto return-to-base and auto landing in designated safe spots.

“If our Skunk can save one human life, then I will be very proud.”

Skunk Riot Control Copter COMPRISES:

* Two high-definition colour cameras

* Thermal camera for night ops

* Two strobe lights

* Two eye-safe pulsating blinding lasers

* Two audio speakers

* Four paintball markers

* Full video onboard recording

* 80 doses of pepper spray per second

* Live video transmission over 5km

* Full control over 10km

* Long-range master override control (20km).

safety a big concern:

The SA Civil Aviation Authority has said drones are not yet legal, but it is working on this.

“Unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) do not comply with the current legislation for the issuing of flight authorisations, permits or restricted flight permits,” said SACAA spokesman Kabelo Ledwaba.

“The director of civil aviation has not given any concession or approval to any organisation, institution or government entity to operate UASs within the South Africa civil airspace.”

He added that the SACAA was working with the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Group and the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking of Unmanned Systems on appropriate regulations, technical standards and certification specifications.

“It is important to note that the SACAA is in full support of the use of UASs in civil airspace; however, the safety of other airspace users, people and property is very important.

“Hence the industry is requested to exercise patience and continue working with the SACAA to harness the benefits offered by this new technology while paying due diligence to safety,” said Ledwaba.

He said the SACAA was willing to engage with all interested parties on this.

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The Star