Drones: The next big thing for the South African security industry?


Drones are among the world’s “ultra-hot” product categories, according to digitaltrends.com.  And this is borne out by the findings of international research company Gartner Inc, which forecasts growth of 50 per cent in global flying drone shipments in 2020.

On the local front, the drone market is also heating up. According to experts in South Africa’s security sector, service providers are increasingly embracing the technology for its ability to traverse awkward areas, stream real-time footage to control rooms and monitor people and places.

An added layer of security
According to Kim James, a director at Drone Guards, drones can be used to create an additional layer of defence to existing security operations.

“An eye in the sky for the security team on duty, drones can be deployed as visible policing or covertly,” she says, adding: “The randomisation of drone flight missions means that even when it’s public knowledge that there’s aerial surveillance on site, people don’t know exactly where the drones will be active. This makes it difficult for criminals to operate so they tend to move to easier targets.”

The drone is really the carrier for the camera which monitors live footage and streams it directly into the control room, James explains. Able to ‘hang’ over questionable activities while armed response teams assess the situation and the best course of action to take before deployment, the drone stops them from going ‘blind’ into potential danger.

G4S has adopted a number of drone-based solutions in recent times says Eddie Ueckermann, G4S Africa Commercial Director.

The company is using drones for patrolling and supervising harbour areas, construction sites and large perimeters.  It’s also using them for guard inspections and in security breaches and alarm responses as well as in searches for missing people.

Drones, he says, are making it possible for G4S to supplement video surveillance with camera-equipped drones, which can perform flights according to pre-programmed time schedules and be managed remotely from a surveillance centre – important for anyone wanting pictures of incidents occurring in specific areas in real time.

Gated communities
The ‘gated community’ or ‘residential estate’ is big business in South Africa, says James, quoting statistics from the Association of Residential Communities (ARC), which puts five million people living in approximately 7 000 estates around the country, with assets worth around R800 billion.

In its most basic form, she says, security at a residential estate – or commercial site, for that matter – consists of a boom operator at the entrance.

“More sophisticated security operations have multiple layers of defence in place, which may include electrified perimeter fencing, CCTV (closed circuit television), static thermal cameras, motion sensors and armed response teams.

“The one constant in most security operations is the security guard. Given the level of sophistication of criminals targeting high value assets, a guard with a torch is usually the weakest link in a security system.”

Part of visible policing efforts in estates, drones are behind a decrease in untoward activities such as cable theft and other crime. “Drones have speed on their side when it comes to patrolling,” she explains.

“Human guards are able to cover 5km per hour on average with a fairly limited viewpoint, whereas drones fly at approximately 35km an hour for this purpose, at a better vantage point, and thus with greater coverage.”

In South Africa, with its high levels of violent crime, the benefits of drones in security systems are significant, says James. “They create an additional vantage point that keeps the response team safer, they expose the criminal’s modus operandi, entry and escape routes, and they can monitor security guards.”

Lowly paid guards can be vulnerable to blackmail and bribery, creating a weak link in a security system, she continues. As a result, innovative security companies are showing growing interest in drone technology which follows programmed routes without deviating from protocol, allows for quicker and more effective patrols, and differentiates them from their competitors.

Managing expectations
Although the expectation in the market is that drones can be autonomously deployed and used for rapid response and pursuit in active crime situations, regulations in South Africa dictate that drones are physically piloted by a certified individual, James says.

Depending on the operation, a minimum of a two-crew team (the drone pilot and an observer or pilot assistant) is required by law to be deployed to the site and must always be in control of the drone.

“So, in the case of an activated fence alarm, the expectation would be that a ‘drone in a box’ permanently on site can be deployed to the point of interest without human intervention.

Or that criminals caught in the act and now on the run, could be pursued over roads, neighbourhoods and for an indefinite amount of time. Some of this is, of course, technically possible but regulations at this point in time do not allow it.

In other words, technology has out-paced regulations. This means that the use of a drone service is still relatively expensive as a result of the mandatory human intervention. Although highly desired, many smaller residential estates may not yet be able to afford this service as a result.”

Then there’s battery life to consider. Current battery technology allows for a 25-35 minute ‘hang time’ of multi-rotor drones, but fixed wing drones have up to two-hour endurance, she points out.

“That said, operations at residential estates and smaller commercial sites are surprisingly effective with 25-minute missions, where battery changes by the drone crew also allow for the randomisation of flight routes to be managed.”

Cost vs benefit
It makes sense for security service providers to be able to utilise the latest technology to reduce crime, says James. “Budgets can be stretched to incorporate advanced security technology with the right Return on Investment (ROI) business case if the end result is increased property prices and higher rental occupancy rates.

However, from the perspective of the security company, adding the drone service to an existing system would probably make the service too expensive for the client. The answer, she suggests, lies in part with upskilling the existing workforce rather than bringing in a separate drone crew.

Drones will not eradicate the need for the human entirely, believes James. But what they can do is add a layer of efficiency which will become invaluable. “The future of drones looks bright.

Technology is improving, so flight controllers, software, battery technology and therefore ‘hang time’, will also improve. As with any technology, drone services will become cheaper as mass production and economies of scale kick in. Regulations will evolve too and that means a future of more autonomous and even more cutting-edge technology.”

Drones in the insurance sector
The insurance sector is also using drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) to its advantage, says Bertus van Zyl, MD of UAV Aerial Works. Drones are proving to be invaluable in areas such as risk assessment for underwriting purposes, investigations at claims stage and catastrophe losses.

“Traditionally, risk managers used old-school methods to measure the potential risk of future claims at underwriting stage,” he explains.

“For commercial policies for example, this would include reviewing an organisation’s safety practices and records, insurance claims history, overall health of the business, type of business and the state of the physical property from which they operate.

Risk specialists would review all elements objectively and subjectively, they would do site inspections, they’d have meetings with management, and they would observe parts of the operations on site taking photographs or video recording for reference. All of this could take days of manual review and capture.”

“Now imagine enhancing those processes with an aerial view of the premises,” Van Zyl continues. “The efficiency and accuracy with which data can be obtained and shared is ground-breaking. Depending on the complexity of the site, this would in most instances save significant person hours and ultimately costs.”

Another benefit, which comes from reviewing the aerial footage, is the understanding of potential risks such as roof and building deterioration and security loopholes. In addition, he notes, thermal imaging can identify hidden hotspots, which allows for accurate underwriting and client management. The client can then mitigate those risks, the policy is adjusted accordingly and the premium right-sized.”

Good and bad
Drones come with a host of benefits, says Pieter Scholtz from T-Systems South Africa, but there is a downside that needs to be considered, too.  Criminals could use drones to hack corporate networks and infiltrate organisations, usually for cybercrime purposes and industrial espionage, he warns.

They could also use drones to offload contraband into prisons and other restricted areas. So on one hand, he says, drones are a technology that can deliver value to organisations but on the other, they could be used as tools for criminals, a Pandora’s box of evil.

When you open the door to new possibilities, you often also open the door for new risks adds G4S’s Ueckermann, hence the need for anti-drone technology, which is primarily focused on the protection of prisons, fence and perimeter surveillance, and the protection of public buildings and embassies.

The market is full of products designed to deal with unwanted drones, including net guns and jamming components, he points out. What needs to be considered, though, is that regulations in some countries do not allow signals to be jammed in any way whatsoever.

This, he explains, is in line with a commitment to protecting all the wireless components that surround people in their everyday lives.

Net guns, too, aren’t ideal with their limited range. The best anti-drone solution in his experience is one that incorporates real-time drone discovery with an alarm, active response, protection and surveillance, recordings and event reports.

This, he says, is best achieved by using a radio-based warning system and a security officer who is able to follow the drone and intervene at the right time.

Romeo Durscher, Senior Director of Public Safety Integration at global drone manufacturer DJI, which provides solutions to both the commercial sector and hobbyists, says: “Any new technology brings initial challenges.

We have seen this over and over again, from automobiles to airplanes to computers, and even with smartphones. It’s important to review, discuss and come up with guidelines, regulations and laws which mitigate the potential risks in order to achieve the many benefits of new technologies. Drones are no exception.”

Concerns include how to manage airspace and ensure safety, privacy and security from airborne drones, and how customer data is captured, managed and protected, he continues.

“Making those decisions requires the legal and technology communities to work together to find solutions that benefit everyone.

DJI has developed solutions including a geofencing system to help drone pilots steer clear of restricted airspace, airplane and helicopter detectors for professional drones that fly in complicated airspace, and a Remote Identification system called AeroScope that allows safety, security and aviation officials to identify and monitor airborne drones.”

“We have seen amazing use cases of drones, not just from hobbyists capturing the beauty of nature, sports and action from above, but from within commercial verticals such as inspection, construction and most notably, public safety,” Durscher says.

“Drones are helping save lives across the world. To date we have 350 documented cases where drones were the main tool in a rescue. That’s 350 people who are still with us today. That economic and emotional impact is tremendous. And just as important is the unknown number of additional lives saved among our first responders because they have better data much faster, allowing them to mitigate risks and make more effective decisions on the fly.

All of this saves taxpayers money; preventing injury to emergency responders has a huge financial impact on a city, district or state. Plus, drones are less expensive to operate than manned aircraft, can launch within less than a minute and again, mitigate risks for all involved.”

The future
With their heightened efficiency and long-term cost effectiveness, expectations are that drones will stimulate business growth on the back of a value-added digital environment, says James.

And DJI says one of the most important aspects of UAVs is their potential to make dangerous jobs safer. “From human safety to wildlife and environmental conservation, drones are fixing common problems,” says Durscher.

“We are seeing drones used in academic research, tower and bridge inspections, accident reconstructions, disaster response and relief, search and rescue, structural and wildland fires, helping park rangers protect wildlife day and night, increasing farmers’ yields by helping find problem areas in a field, and inspiring students during STEAM (Science Technology Engineering, Arts and Math) projects.

It’s no surprise that we are teaching the next generation of drone operators today. We have only touched the tip of the iceberg of possibilities.”

“Drones are here to stay, and we can say for certain that the cost, risk and reward calculation needs to be done with some boldness,” says Drone Guards’ Kim James.

“How can one compare cost and profit to securing your estate or commercial site effectively? “Embrace the technology and stay ahead of the criminals and your competitors – it’s a journey worth embarking on.”