Drones, otherwise known as remotely piloted aircraft systems, continue to gain a foothold in an increasing number of industries, with adoption rates in the safety and security industry growing worldwide. In fact, safety and security drone sales totalled $145-million in 2016, according to a market report compiled by ReportLinker and titled the ‘Safety & Security Drones Study’.
Nevertheless, the safety and security market represents only a small segment of the greater drones industry. However, it is expected to see significant gains in the medium term, with sales expected to nearly double in 2019 as new technologies become available and awareness of the benefits of these systems increases.
Sales from 2019 to 2022 are projected to result in even greater gains, increasing nearly fivefold as commercialisation and use become more widespread.
Consequently, the rapidly developing application of drones for surveillance is also grabbing the attention of local big business and major law enforcement agencies, such as the South African Police Service (SAPS), metropolitan police services and other State-owned companies and agencies.
“As the technology to support drones progresses, facilities, infrastructure and asset managers will be able to better use drones to perform fundamental maintenance and security activities,” says enterprise applications company Softworx MD Jane Thomson.
Several South African drone manufacturers and suppliers are also keen to get into the supply of security drones to such companies and agencies, with calls being made to State departments for capability demonstrations.
Several local drone manufacturers are also developing specific security drones for security applications such as power line monitoring.
The benefits of using drones for security and surveillance operations are significant, with major cost savings resulting from not having to use manned helicopters or even fixed-wing aircraft, which require at least a pilot and an instrument operator, if not more personnel, on land and in the air.
Drones can also be deployed in or near target areas as a primary intelligence-gathering tool, with live video feeds being relayed to a ground station from which ground operations can be directed. This will also benefit the way in which drones can be used during security operations, which often have rapidly changing dynamics.
It is expected that drones will be able to enhance the manner in which different aspects are managed, as drones offer a unique aerial perspective, from which various parties can simultaneously view live footage and communicate commands and intelligence to units and personnel involved.
Drones are mostly being considered, or used on a small scale, by corporates and State-owned companies and government departments to enhance the safety and security of their assets.
As an example of drones being used to improve the safety of a regional railway system, a memorandum of agreement (MoA) between the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA), the City of Cape Town, and the Western Cape Department of Transport and Public Works was set in motion in February.
As part of the MoA, drone technology was posited as a potential tool to help increase safety and security on the rail system. PRASA acting CEO Mthuthuzeli Swartz said at the time: “We will deploy drone technology within days, which should assist us to monitor any criminal activity on the system.”
Transnet has floated plans to use drones to monitor and improve security for its extensive operations at the Durban harbour, in KwaZulu-Natal. It also reports that improved security measures, such as the deployment of drones on its coal line, helped to improve volume performance as a result of fewer incidents of cable theft in 2017.
Although drones are currently not operational within Eskom to support security- related activities, the State-owned power utility tells Engineering News they are being considered as part of the future security strategy.
“Eskom is currently investigating the use of drones within Eskom’s Solutions, Research and Development unit, as well as [in] collaboration with research and development (R&D) institutions, such as the Council for Scientific and Industrual Research (CSIR),” says Eskom.
The focus of the Eskom research division’s work on drones is currently limited to power line inspections; however, the security division has consulted with the Eskom R&D unit to consider security as part of its future research on drones. “This request was welcomed,” says Eskom.
The collaboration on the use of drones between Eskom and the CSIR covers both line inspections and surveillance.
Explaining the important role drones could play within Eskom structures, the utility says that, owing to the vastness of Eskom infrastructure and the remoteness of some of the facilities, drones are capable of playing a very critical role in surveillance, the recovery of stolen items where tracking capability is available and also in providing footage for prosecution purposes.
Various instances illustrate the potential benefits of using drones. A spate of recent attacks on hikers and visitors to areas near Table Mountain, in Cape Town, prompted a multistakeholder task force (including the City of Cape Town, the Western Cape government, the SAPS and South African National Parks) to investigate the use of drones for surveillance, as well as the tracking and identification of suspects.
Further, the City of Cape Town trialled the use of a drone fitted with an infrared camera during a crime fighting operation in a township, which it considered a great success.
Using drones for security operations affords a greater degree of collaboration between various government agencies, especially during multiparty security operations, as has been the case during the Western Cape-based township operations involving the SAPS, the metropolitan police and even the South African National Defence Force.
Large corporates are also keen to use drones to identify and monitor security hot spots and areas of interest pertaining to their operations and assets.
In terms of mining security, mining major Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) divisional surveyor Donovan Andersen believes that the dynamic use of security drones would go a long way towards helping the miner curb theft, especially at its Rustenburg-based Amandelbult platinum complex. He adds that losses resulting from theft, amounting to as much as R17-million monthly, are common occurences at the complex.
However, to successfully use security drones at the mining complex would involve deploying the drones beyond the visual line of sight. In this type of application, the drone would be operated from a distance, where it is not visible to the human eye, as it would either be too far and/or obstructed, for example, by a hill, mountain or equipment.
Amplats’ envisaged use of security drones would also necessitate having to fly them at night and higher than the currently allowed 121 m from surface – parameters that are currently blanket-prohibited by the South African Civil Aviation Authority. The only drone operator in South Africa with the authority to operate a drone flying higher than 121 m and beyond the visual line of sight is State-owned defence company Denel.
Key findings of the ‘Safety & Security Drones Study’ point to the bulk of drones in the commercial market being primarily used for safety and security applications.
The report also highlights that strict regulations and high costs have limited the adoption of commercial drones, compared with the established military segment and the fast expanding consumer segment.
However, the rapid development of commercial technologies, and the rising awareness of integrating drones into existing security systems and services to provide actionable intelligence will lead to explosive growth. Other key factors that could propel significant gains in the adoption of safety and security drones are increasing competition and improving economies of scale, which will lead to prices falling.
The ongoing development of more specialised analytic software and capabilities that enable drone systems to gather crucial data for safety and security applications more quick and more efficiently could be a catalytic development.
Automation could also be a key factor in developments, which would contribute to decreasing labour costs and improving worker safety. Autonomous systems used specifically for security applications could detect anomalies in moving video feeds, as well as in network security technology that enables the drone systems to resist cyberthreats. Meanwhile, service revenues will benefit from consulting and training services that assist end-users in choosing the most suitable drone equipment and software for their application, and in operating them.
Interest in leasing equipment to better distribute costs and benefit from software update agreements will further improve gains in the industry. In the longer term, outsourced drone operation services are expected to account for a rising share of revenue but will compete with autonomous software.
The evolving regulatory environment will also shape the growth of sales in safety and security drones.