A South Africa-based company will be selling 25 units of its crowd control drones to an undisclosed South African mining company likely for use against protesting workers, BBC News reported on Wednesday.
The drones, originally unveiled by their maker Desert Wolf at a trade show near Johannesburg last month, sell for nearly $50,000 apiece and are equipped with four "high-capacity paint ball barrels" that can each shoot a total of up to 80 paint, pepper, or plastic balls per second, with a full capacity of 4,000 balls. In addition to a generic on-board high-definition camera, it has a thermal camera for use at night, as well as “bright strobe lights, blinding Lasers and on-board speakers” that can be used to warn crowds, according to the company’s website.
"Our aim is to assist in preventing another Marikana, we were there and it should never happen again," the website states, referring to the 2012 miner's strike that led to the infamous massacre that resulted in countless injuries and the deaths of 44 people.
The purchase by the unnammed company comes in the midst of strikes sweeping South Africa's mining industry. The country possesses over 80 percent of the world's known platinum reserves, and the mining industry has seen continuous protest and striking since the deadly Marikana massacre. Just last week, the three major platinum producers that workers have waged a 21-week wage strike against announced that they had reached a deal “in principle” with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, but Wednesday it was reported that the AMCU had refused it.
While Desert Wolf argues the selling point of the drones is their ability to stop future tragedies like the Marikana disaster by controlling “unruly crowds without endangering the lives of the protestors or the security staff,” Noel Sharkey, chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, says that drones such as the skunk will be used to suppress legitimate protests with potentially dire consequences.
"Firing plastic balls or bullets from the air will maim and kill," Sharkey told BBC News. "Using pepper spray against a crowd of protesters is a form of torture and should not be allowed. We urgently need an investigation by the international community before these drones are used."
Desert Wolf Managing Director Hennie Kieser said that the company “cannot disclose the customer, but [can] say it will be used by an international mining house.” Kieser reportedly also told the BBC that police units and a “number of other industrial customers” have expressed interest in the product.
Tim Noonan, spokesman for the International Trade Union Confederation, voiced concerns of the international labor community over the news.
“This is a deeply disturbing and repugnant development, and we are convinced that any reasonable government will move quickly to stop the deployment of advanced battlefield technology on workers or indeed the public involved in legitimate protests and demonstrations,” said Noonan. "We will be taking this up as a matter of urgency with the unions in the mining sector globally," he added.