SAPS looks to deploy drones in war against crime

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 07 Jul 2021

The South African Police Service has collaborated with unmanned aerial surveillance firm Drone Guards and crime-fighting initiative, the Forum of Integrated Risk Management (FIRM), to work on a proof-of concept project that seeks to deploy drones to help combat crime in the City of Johannesburg.

The new project, currently in testing phase, seeks to increase proactive crime prevention and crime-solving by using surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles to provide all-round patrolling of the city and facilitate a more rapid response during emergency situations.

This was revealed at the recent hybrid Drones and Unmanned Aviation Conference, in a presentation titled: “Incorporating drones into policing operations” conducted by Kim James, director of Drone Guards, and Wayne Dawson, board chairperson of FIRM.

FIRM was established by Johannesburg inner city stakeholders in February 2019, as a response to the closure of the M2 bridge for repairs, which resulted in an increase in the crime rate in the Johannesburg CBD, as motorists sought alternative routes.

Drone Guards is the drone technology partner for FIRM, providing tech resources, expertise and training to security firms on the deployment of drones.

James explained that a proof of concept (POC) with local police would provide support to law enforcement officers, by providing around the clock monitoring of the city through the use of drones, while also providing important data analytics to help the police analyse and better understand the crime trends.

“Drone aerial surveillance consists of several elements, including visible policing, data collection, incidence response and monitoring of situations on the ground. So many things happen during the day, including murder and post-incident activity, and using data gathered through the monitoring process and learning certain trends can help law enforcement better understand the criminals’ mods operandi.”

Drone Guards has been contracted to provide drone security services to a number of residential estates in SA. Its drones are piloted by a human operator, and are programmed to follow a co-ordinated GPS position around the estates.

James pointed out that the high level of crime in SA has had a detrimental impact on foreign investment and highlighted the importance of cooperation between law enforcement and private security in SA in the areas of crime prevention and response.

“Although in our drone security work we would love to say we are radically decreasing crime, the challenges we have in actually addressing crime is that our law-enforcement agencies are under-resourced and they are struggling to help keep this under control. Four South African cities are sadly ranked among the 10 cities in the word which have the highest crime rate, and that makes me cringe when I talk about this, as one of the contributing factors of crime is the high unemployment rate in this country.”

James pointed out that the drones would provide an aerial view of what’s happening on the ground. “For instance, during a vehicle chase, if a criminal makes one turn, it’s often easy for the police to lose them… so the drones will provide a bird's-eye view of the situation, which can then be sent to the control room.”

Crime capital of SA

Dawson noted that Johannesburg was SA’s crime capital when FIRM first came into existence over two years ago.

Through the combined use of technologies such as body cameras, security services and public service ambassadors (PSA), the crime levels decreased within seven months, leading to Johannesburg ranking as the seventh-most crime-infested city in SA, he said.

“We did a POC with the SAPS, to show them how drone patrols in the city of Johannesburg can add value to reducing crime and attacks on the PSA on duty. We’ve now been asked to partner with the police team in terms of their Safer Cities Project and drones are part and parcel of that.

“To make drones work in Johannesburg, we will divide the city into four separate areas on the map and deploy a complete team who understand where the hot spots are, where the escape routes are. With technology, we can eliminate danger to civilians and the city’s employees,” he stated.

The Safer Cities Concept is aimed at creating an environment that enhances social and economic transformation in SA, through building partnerships between communities and government in policing.

While this is the long-term vision of the project, Dawson noted that certain challenges still need to be overcome, including SA’s drone regulatory framework, which requires special permission to fly drones over traffic and public roads.