Is drone security a silver bullet or a tool in the toolkit?  

Drone security team conducting surveillance at a high value asset site

Is drone security a silver bullet or a tool in the toolkit? Fact is, drones in security operations are here to stay, and few security teams dare operate without them. 

There is, however, still some expectation management and education to do. 

While politicians and state-owned enterprises (SOEs)try to tackle this tsunami of a crime wave from behind their desks. Someone must still implement and manage safe, hands-on, and effective security operations.  

Consider the drone an additional tool in the security team’s toolkit which adds a significant layer of defence.  

Aerial Drone Security Surveillance in South Africa remains a hot topic and is in great demand. Not a day goes by without our phones and inboxes lighting up with enquiries about UAV Aerial Works and Drone Guards to secure high-value assets.  

SOEs and large corporations including South Africa’s only power supplier, freight and passenger rail companies, mines and industrial organisations issue tenders and pricing requests frequently for drone surveillance services and private landowners are also desperate for the silver bullet.  

Crime continues to be one of the most debilitating but now commonplace phenomena in South Africa.

On the largest scale, sophisticated criminal syndicates are plundering critical infrastructure of copper cable and metal.   

Syndicates are becoming sophisticated

According to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime’s report on SA’s illicit copper economy is worrying.

The methods used to plunder Transnet and Prasa its 30,000 kilometres of infrastructure have a high level of sophistication, planning and coordination, and are now almost military operations. 

A variety of criminal actors are involved at different levels, including the people who steal the copper, the scrap metal dealers who buy it, and the more sophisticated bulk buyers and recyclers. 

Within these different levels, the profits available from dealing in illicit copper vary, with the lower levels taking the biggest risks for the least rewards and the higher levels receiving greater rewards for less risk. 

According to Richard Stewart, Sibanye-Stillwater’s chief regional officer for Southern Africa, criminals gain access to the active workings of the mines through disused tunnels, usually in the period after blasting when the mines are empty.  

Measures to combat copper theft and related security issues would cost the mine R200 million in 2023, adding that ‘The window in which these guys operate, we have closed that window.’ 

Drone security efforts to curb brazen thefts

However, as mining companies introduce measures to prevent criminal access to underground copper cables, the gangs target above-ground operations. In the case of Sibanye-Stillwater, heavily armed criminal gangs have attacked infrastructure including plants, laboratories and substations. 

This brazen theft and damage results in the loss of basic service and power supply to industry and the most marginalised communities, influencing overall production, supply chains, investment, and employment security.  

Whilst the country’s SOEs are trying to address this economic sabotage with suggested changes in legislation, the South African Police Service and the private industry players continue to lose the fight against these highly sophisticated syndicates.  

Traditional methods of policing and securing high-value assets are being foiled by even the pettiest of criminals never mind highly organised crime organisations.   

Enter drone security

Is drone security a silver bullet or a tool in the toolkit?  

The layers of defence deployed in conventional private security operations are slowly becoming more advanced. However, given the ever-increasing complexity of how well-informed and organised criminals operate, adding drone technology as a layer of defence to already existing operations is proving exponentially more effective.  

It may seem obvious, but the elements of adding drone technology as a layer of defence in security operations go beyond simply the drone and the drone operator.  

There are understandably multiple layers in the lead-up to the implementation of a drone security surveillance operation. Each of these players forms an important part of the procurement and management of the service and, it is understood, that careful consideration and operational experience is key on the part of the drone operator to ensure effective outcomes for all.  

Each player in the ecosystem of a security operation focuses on a specific outcome.  

We will focus on the two main players: first, the business will determine the need for the service, in this case, the head of security or the protection services. 

Often the business decision maker will be very aware of the problem they must solve. It may be as operationally thought through as an inaccessible area for vehicles and guards, making it a perfect entry, exit, or hide-out spot for suspects.  

It may be that syndicates operating in an area are particularly violent in their modus operandi, therefore putting ground forces in grave danger when approaching them in the dark.

Most times, the main reason is as simple as the need to cut crime. 

Full integration with ground forces

The ground security and tactical response teams should work with a drone team like a military ground force with its air force. During implementation this is often a challenge since on-the-ground security teams are unfamiliar with working with an air force – it is a new layer of defence and a new tool in their toolbox, so they need to learn how to use it. 

Succinct communications and sharing of intel to understand and agree on operation tactics – randomisation of surveillance patrols, monitoring a suspect vs ‘going in’ for the drone-aided pursuit and apprehension or placement.

All these elements are vital and, the time it takes to become a seamless operational team cannot be underestimated.  

This does not happen overnight, and simulations and scenario planning have proven highly effective.  

Measures of success

The most obvious metrics for a drone security surveillance operation are time in the air (TIA), distance covered, number of flights and time per flight. 

An additional way of measuring the success of the drone operation is the measure of actual effectiveness. Has the crime been reduced or even stopped?

All too often security management does not openly share ‘baseline crime data’. Reporting on this is helpful, resulting in drone operation effectiveness becoming measurable; active drone operation = crime reduction. 

A highly effective drone programme literally moves criminal activity away from the site in question to neighbouring sites i.e. the next softest target.

Once programmes manage to reduce or eradicate crime is on a site, we can turn flight frequency can be down to maintain a presence whilst conserving battery cycles and drone life.  

ALSO READ: Recognising success – Women in Africa’s Drone Industry fly high

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