SA to field rotary-wing UAVs?

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Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu says state arsenal Denel has developed a rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that may be used to combat rhino poachers. The company has never before acknowledged such a development but it did surprise the market at Africa Aerospace and Defence 2010 in September by unveiling two previously unknown evolutions: the Impi precision-guided missile and an armed version of the Seeker unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

Sisulu Thursday told a press conference in Pretoria she wanted Denel to further develop the UAV so it could be used to help SA National Parks catch rhino poachers. “The issue of rhinos is one we recognise as particularly brutal, and we have committed ourselves to SANParks [South African National Parks, the wildlife authority] in dealing with this matter,” she said.
“”We also want to take advantage of the fact that Denel has a particular UAV that is able to assist us,” she said according to the South African Press Association. Sisulu described the UAV as “like a ‘model’ helicopter that your eight year old sons use”.

The platform can also carry a sensor package that includes cameras. “They say it is so good it is able to detect the colour of the shirt of the poacher,” SAPA quoted her saying. “In the long term we can build on it. We want to develop it to the point where we can target the poacher. Initially we might just paint him red and arrest him, but as time goes on we will take more drastic measures,” she said, but did not elaborate on what these measures might be.

Denel’s UAV expertise resides in the Dynamics business, but Denel Dynamics CE Jan Wessels declined to confirm or deny the development. “We are in confidential discussion with DoD on various surveillance requirements … and don’t want to comment at this stage,” he said in an email.

Sisulu’s spokesman, Ndivhuwo Mabaya, told defenceWeb the rotorcraft was recently demonstrated to the minister. Defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman also confirmed the development, saying “there has been some work on rotary UAVs for some time.”

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), an agency of the Department of Science and Technology, has previously developed at last two rotary UAVs. It was reported last March that the CSIR had demonstrated an electric rotary UAV to the South African Police Service. This was fitted with a surveillance camera beneath the body and driven by a lithium polymer battery. One advantage was that the UAV was “fairly quiet” but disadvantages included short range and endurance. The second model had a turbine engine and had greater range, endurance and payload, but at the cost of more noise.

The Weekend Post newspaper reports 270 rhinos have been butchered so far this year. The total last year was 122 and for 2008 it was 83. The paper says Rodney Visser, a former police organised crime unit head said it was clear the Eastern Cape province – where the paper published – was dealing with highly organised criminals. “We are dealing with sophisticated criminals here. You don’t just stumble into a 10 000ha reserve and take a shot in the dark. They do their homework and know exactly what they are looking for and how they are going to get it.” It had also become clear that large-scale planning went into a hit. “These guys are using state-of-the-art GPS devices to track the animals. We’ve also found that they often strike during full moon, which makes their jobs easier.”

Visser said looking at the seven rhino deaths in the province over the past two years, it was evident the methods and equipment used were growing more sophisticated. In 2008 and 2009 the first two rhinos were killed in the province and in both incidents the poachers used AK47s. Later in 2009, poachers were arrested while trying to kill a rhino by injecting poison into a cabbage and feeding it to the animal. Darting chemicals were used for the first time in August last year. The two latest incidents at Amakhala involved darting.

Visser said intelligence and recent related arrests indicated those involved in poaching incidents were gangsters, drug dealers, former perlemoen poachers as well as Vietnamese rhino horn syndicates.He said many former perlemoen poachers had now moved into the rhino horn trade because of dwindling perlemoen resources.He added that criminals often invested in environmental crime as it was more profitable. Some 145 people have been arrested in recent months for poaching, including two veterinarians, a helicopter pilot and a game farmer.

The rhino horn trade is a lucrative business as horns fetch about R85 000 per kilogram locally and up to R270 000 per kilogram internationally. “This has increased over the last few months – earlier this year a kilogram was sold for between R45 000 and R60 000.” Visser said rhino poaching was also attractive to criminals as their chances of getting caught were slimmer. “If they do get caught the penalties are also not as severe as for other crimes.” He said he believed one of the reasons for the sudden spate in rhino poaching was that the dry horn supply in South Africa was depleted.

Sisulu earlier this month said SANParks had “urgently requested” that the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) be brought in to help stop rhino poaching. “Rhino poaching is a crime we will have to stop immediately, it is cruel and brutal, SANParks has requested us to assist urgently,” she said in a statement. “The SANDF has some of the best air to land equipment to perform this function. Denel [the state arsenal] also boasts some of the best air equipment that can help us to stop the poaching. We are working on this matter, it is urgent,” she added.

President Jacob Zuma and Cabinet last month expressed concern about rhino poaching in the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park that includes the KNP. Then-Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Buyelwa Sonjica told a Rhino Summit in Pretoria earlier in October South Africa had a population of about 19 000 white rhino and 1750 black rhino. “The rhino population in South Africa is being threatened by an upsurge in illegal killing and the leakage of illegally obtained rhino horn into the international illegal trade,” Sonjica said.



Pic: A CSIR rotary UAV pictured in March 2009.