Drone Guards look forward to autonomous future of drones


“Autonomous flight is where it is going to end up for sure” was among the key remarks from Kim James, Director of UAV Aerial Works and Drone Guards, when presenting on the future of drone technology in the security sector.

James told the recent African Drones Conference 2020 that Sky Robots, a drone development company she has, is “Betting on the future.” It is developing a fully autonomous drone specifically for security.

James said that utilising drones in the security sector can be about managing expectations. Applications for drones in security is limited due to South Africa prescribing to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards. “These clients would be asking us whether we could fly a drone out of a control room in Sandton, 50 kilometres away and unfortunately that is not possible yet,” said James. While it is technologically possible, regulations prevent long distanced control room operations.

James is aiming for the future where one pilot can control a swarm of drones from a remote location and even have fully autonomous swarms of drones.

What is possible today, James explained, is one operator controlling one drone in visual line of sight or beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). “What we do is secure high-value assets and people over residential estates.” Drones are able to provide an aerial view of mines, crowds and shopping centres, amongst others.

“Oftentimes we are asked if we can weaponize the drone and can we shoot people. The answer is we could but we don’t and we can’t,” explained James.

She said that a drone acts as a deterrent for criminals who can see they are being monitored from above. Early detection and prevention, James said, is the first step for drones in the security industry. The next step is incident response, where a drone can provide crucial insight into the situation for mitigation, and provide support to those that need to make a decision on how to respond.

Security drones provide post-incident data analysis and further mitigation. If criminals breach a perimeter and an alarm is triggered, this can cue a response from a drone and a ground control team can use the drone to adequately responded to the situation. A drone can detect where criminals enter a restricted property, track their movement and provide aerial data into how the criminals are operating (Are they armed? How many of them are there?) in real time and without putting lives at risk. “Often times, in the dark, during night operations, when these criminals run away, they just disappear and no one can see where they have entered from or where their escape routes are,” explained James.

James stated that Drone Guards often sees a reduction in activity when using visible surveillance, day and night. “Individuals will go somewhere with less heat, so to speak.” Private holiday homes, residential areas and reserves are often poorly lit, becoming a target for criminals, James said. The payload of drones can have high definition thermal imaging and zoom lenses, allowing for optimal situation awareness, early detection and deterrence of crimes.

Naturally, drones are much faster than a guard on foot, for patrols and in pursuit. Footage can also be used as legal evidence. James also highlighted how non-intrusive their patrols are, stating they patrol between 10 pm and 6 am and that they do not generally fly over houses, and stick to perimeters. When it comes to pursuing criminals fleeing via surrounding properties, James stated that Drone Guards obtains the relevant permissions beforehand to ensure peoples’ right to privacy are not being intruded on.

As technology develops and regulations are reconsidered and matured, companies like Drone Guards will be able to be in the air longer with a greater capacity for detection as payload, machine learning, battery and software technology develops. The only element seemingly holding back drone technology in the security sector is a rainy day or thunderstorm. “Because we fly over people, everything we do has to have safety factored into it… We do not want anyone’s safety put at risk,” said James.

James concluded in stating that drone technology has moved the security industry forward considerably. “Everyone knows in security the human is the weakest link; that is where drone technology comes in…We want to get to a point where the machine, the control room monitor with the data that the drone is feeding into the control room will tell the human when there is a trigger event.”