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Facing massive strikes, mining corporations may soon use weaponized drones to control workers

A South African technology company is promoting a crowd control drone capable of marking individuals in crowds and firing less than lethal weapons. The firm plans to market the drone to mining corporations, which have recently faced massive strikes and protests throughout South Africa. A trade publication describes the Desert Wolf corporation's Skunk drone:

Armed with four paintball guns, it can fire a variety of ammunition to subdue unruly crowds.

The Skunk is designed to control crowds without endangering the lives of security staff. Bright strobe lights and on-board speakers enable operators to communicate with and warn the crowd. If things get out of control the Skunk can use its four paintball guns to disperse or mark people in the crowd. Four ammunition hoppers can load different types of ammunition such as dye marker balls, pepper spray balls or solid plastic balls. Payload capacity of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is 40 kg but since the gun assembly weighs around 15 kg the aircraft has an excess of power.

In addition to two high definition day cameras, the Skunk carries a FLIR thermal camera for night vision capability. A camera and microphone on the operator’s station records the operators (a pilot and payload operator) so their behaviour can be monitored. Hennie Kieser, Director of Desert Wolf, said people tend to be less aggressive when they are monitored.

In February 2014, police killed a shop steward for the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union during a strike at an Anglo American Platinum Ltd. mine.

South African labor strikes at mines early this year involved tens of thousands of workers and apparently dented corporate profits by nearly two hundred million dollars. The mining companies and police have deployed water cannons, rubber bullets, and possibly even live ammunition against workers striking for better wages and conditions. Soon, if Desert Wolf has its way, they may be firing these weapons from drones.

© 2022 ACLU of Massachusetts.