SAPS and JMPD see drones in their future


In a webinar under the theme, “Use of drones in public order policing”, representatives from the South African Police Service (SAPS) and Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) stated that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) will be used in the future for law enforcement, public safety and disaster management.

The Drone Con webinar, held on 20 May, was hosted by David Lekota, Director of Auxiliary & Security Services at the JMPD, and centred around uses for drones, the best drones to use and ethics in law enforcement, public safety and disaster management. Lekota and Brigadier Simon Mahlangu (SAPS Air Wing) both said the SAPS intends to use UAVs for a more investigative role while the JMPD sees drones as a useful tool in crowd monitoring and car accidents.

Victor Radebe (Mzansi Drone Accelerator) was the programme director along with a panel featuring Romeo Durscher (senior director of public safety and integration at DJI, United States), Dr Sumarie Roodt (lead researcher at the University of Cape Town), René-Peter Masoen (Commercial Drones) and Simon Segwabe (Aviation Safety Operations – SA Civil Aviation Authority)

Lekota opened the webinar with an overview of the JMPD during the COVID-19 lockdown and the opportunities they have to work with drones. The JMPD has 7 540 police officers with specialised units that utilize 1 400 vehicles within the 1.6 billion square metre metropolitan area of Johannesburg.

Lekota suggested many opportunities where drones can and will be used by the JMPD such as monitoring marches, stadiums, university protests and demonstrations and added, “We will be using drones on our highways, monitoring accidents as well as land invasion. As you can see now, because of COVID-19, we have recently experienced a lot of people taking land without actual approval.” Lekota went onto say that the JMPD sees drones as “our future” in law enforcement enhancement.

Lekota stated that future drone operations by the JMPD will take place through its Intelligence Integrated Operation Centre (IOC) and that a multi-agency mechanism between private security and law enforcement needs to be established to reduce crime in Johannesburg. Lekota did not give a date as to exactly when UAVs will be used by the JMPD nor did he give the number of UAVs to be used or specifications of what UAVs will be used.

The next presentation was by Romeo Durscher, a well-known advocate for the use of drones in public safety. Durscher’s presentation featured case studies of how drones were used in public safety and wildfires in the US. Drones started to be utilised in public safety in the US from around 2014 and their use has grown exponentially since, with DJI being the number one manufacturer.

For public safety officers responding to disaster such as fires or car accidents, data on the situation is needed in order to take action. In public safety, quick, clear and concise situational awareness is key to successful decision-making. The UAV provides a bird’s-eye view of the situation, providing live situational awareness on the ground which can be streamed to command centres. However, the UAV itself is only part of the data collection process – the sensor (payload), flight planning, on board computers and analytical software used with the UAV is what allows public safety officers to extract vital information allowing for a quicker and more informed response.

Durscher used an example of his deployment to map out the effects of a wildfire and conduct search and recovery tasks that spanned an area of roughly 68 km. Done in unison with law enforcement and fire departments, Durscher was able to use drones along with their payload, flight planning, onboard computers and analytical software to gain a high-resolution 360 degree aerial view to analyse where and what the fire had damaged. In situations such as tanker crashes or where heat is a factor, sensors on drones give public safety officers a close view and a thermal image without risking their lives.

In terms of COVID-19 responses, Durscher mentions Chula Vista Police in California using drones to reach out to pockets of their homeless community that are hard to reach. A UAV with a speaker is being used to share public health messages as well as direction to areas where the homeless can receive services such as a medical screening. UAVs were also used for testing site planning and pre-planning for a field hospital.

Masoen then gave a presentation on the Commercial Drones fleet that is currently used in law enforcement and related operations. The DJI Mavic 2 enterprise is a widely used drone in public safety and law enforcement because of its dual camera (normal and infrared), beacon, speaker (heard roughly from 70 to 80 metres) and spotlight. The DJI Matrice 300 RTK with a Zenmuse H20 series camera is the latest and greatest offering from Commercial Drones, Masoen said. The UAV has a 55-minute flight time (36 minutes with a H20T payload), a max speed of 82 km/h and a 15 km transmission range. The UAV can mount up to three payloads simultaneously (single upward gimbal and two downward gimbals) with a maximum payload capacity of 2.7 kg. It has live mission recording system which records aircraft movement, gimbal orientation, photo shooting and zoom level and artificial intelligence spot-check that automates routine inspections by recognising points of interest and identifies it in subsequent automated missions.

In law enforcement and public safety, the UAV has a pinpoint function where one can mark an object in camera or map view with a simple tap, then the sensor will immediately calculate its coordinates, which are projected on all camera views as an AR (augmented reality) icon. The location of the subject is automatically shared with another remote controller or to online platforms such as DJI FlightHub.

Mahlangu was then asked where the SAPS are in terms of developing a drone division as well as how it will be used to prevent human right infringements. “In terms of our drone integration within our operations, I think we are at an advanced stage with that project,” he said. “We do not just go clandestinely and do things that are unlawful.” While Mahlangu maintains that the SAPS will follow the necessary procedures and court approvals for any investigative role that a UAV plays, he did not detail which, how many or when UAVs will be utilised by the SAPS. Lekota added that when it comes to compliance, the JMPD will go through the necessary channels to obtain ROCs (Remote Operator Certificates) and other necessary licenses. However, the JMPD does not have investigative powers like the SAPS, meaning their case use for the technology will be different.

Discussions concluded around questioning data collection, whose hands it might fall into and vague questions around the terrorist and/or criminal capabilities a UAV possesses. Durscher ensured everyone that DJI is not using nor does it have the capability to use their UAV data collection for nefarious purposes.

The full webinar is available on YouTube.