File photo: Ng Han Guan

Cape Town - Big Brother could soon be in Cape Town in the form of drones, which will be used to keep an eye on anything from public unrest to illegal road use, prompting concerns over privacy.

The City of Cape Town wants to start using drones to fight crime, improve disaster risk management, monitor its utility services and protect the environment.

The drones are also known as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS).

The city has already been experimenting with drones in law-enforcement operations, such as drug busts, for more than a year.

A discussion report, before several of the city’s portfolio committees, said the city would use the drones for “strategic information gathering” and for operational support to its directorates.

The drones can be autonomous or remotely piloted for aerial data collection.

The city would use the drones for search operations, public unrest situations, illegal road use, land invasions and metal theft investigations.

Its disaster risk management department would use the equipment for data gathering, for disaster prevention and mitigation, damage assessments and crowd management at events.

Drones would also assist in fire and rescue operations, the inspection of fire breaks, fire risk mapping, fire-fighting in informal settlements and post-fire analysis.

The city’s utility services departments would benefit by using drones to patrol and monitor vulnerable sewer and cable routes, map stolen drain covers, conduct landfill site surveys and clamp down on illegal dumping.

Drones would also be handy in monitoring public transport interchanges and stations, while the environmental directorate could use the technology for the surveillance of illegal land use, animal location and counts and alien vegetation monitoring.

“The city is of the view that RPAS can contribute significantly to its service delivery in various fields,” said the report.

The report noted that although the city was not yet at the point of being able to develop policy on the matter, the time was right to invite discussion on whether or not to start using drones.

The city is leaning towards outsourcing the service to private companies, to save costs in acquiring the equipment and hiring staff to operate them.

During discussion by the city’s portfolio committee on environment and spatial planning on Wednesday, chairman Dave Bryant said the technology would be useful to monitor the city’s nature reserves and parks, especially in protected areas and difficult-to-access areas.

However, the UDM’s Malcolm Taylor said he was concerned about who would have access to the footage. “If we go this route, it’s so futuristic, we are opening up a Pandora’s box.”

The ANC’s Majidie Abrahams said the city had to be careful how it would deploy drones in residential areas because it could infringe on rights to privacy.

Arne Purves, of the city’s environmental compliance directorate, said the city would be guided by the regulations of the Civil Aviation Authority on the use of RPAS, that came into effect on July 1 last year.

These regulations would ensure the city did not err on the right to privacy and would prohibit it from flying drones into the city’s many restricted airspaces.

But ultimately the city would need to develop its own policy on drone usage, data use and storage, said Purves.

He gave the committee the assurance that the data would remain the city’s property only, and be fed into its existing geographic information system.

Purves said with the fast pace at which technology was growing, it would be better for the city to outsource drone usage for at least three years. “There is no reason for the city to bear the cost of keeping up with technology. There are research and development companies only to happy to test their technology in the real-world environment.”

The city’s safety and security directorate, expected to make the most use of the technology, will probably discuss the drone report at its meeting today.

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Cape Argus