Spy in the sky: Whose drone is it anyway?

Remotely piloted aerial systems (drones) are now available on the open market at ever-decreasing prices. (Gadget)

Remotely piloted aerial systems (drones) are now available on the open market at ever-decreasing prices. (Gadget)

During the recent anti-xenophobia march through Hilbrow and central Johannesburg something struck me as more deeply unnerving than the armed police presence, impatient taxi drivers and a glass bottle hurled at the crowd from a window. They were familiar threats, suppressed into the subconscious by an outpouring of appreciation from crowded streets and bulging balconies.

An entirely unfamiliar entity appeared in the form of a drone – officially termed “remotely piloted aerial system”. From perhaps five meters above ground it surveyed the agitated crowd as it began the march.

Like a bothersome bug: short wings throbbing, two camera eyes peering down, it turned, tilted, changed angles, changed height, then moved along, hovering again, like a sonographer, trained eyes fixed to a screen, moves and twists an ultrasound camera across a patient’s belly, intent not to miss detail. Evidently someone was simultaneously watching the drone footage, tightly controlling what was being filmed.

Who was behind this: a private cameraman, an award-aiming film-maker, the media, or more sinister – intelligence gathering machinery?

For some marchers, the drone went unnoticed, others pointed at it nervously, voicing dismay and unease. At one point, a chanting group in the crowd started roaring at the drone. It hovered awhile. Once satisfied with its footage, it moved along.

Was this an encounter with the future? I recall an architectural rendering of proposed buildings, a drone hovering above public space, people on benches signalling business as usual. Surveillance technology normalised by someone whose business it is to project a future.

A week before the march, a team of young filmmakers from an Ivy League university in the United States working on a documentary about cities had me asking what was new about their project. The response: they were using drone footage. And so I was shown a township and contrasting suburbia as filmed from a moving camera in the air.

The drone had cruised far above the houses. It seemed to comply with civil aviation regulations, which stipulate a 50m distance from any person. It seemed not to have hovered for details. Yet, how would I feel when discovering a drone above my garden? Is this the inevitable future with remotely piloted aerial systems now available on the open market at ever-decreasing prices?

If so, then on all accounts the cheeky drone flying a few metres above a protesting crowd is not something anyone should accept as inevitable. As much as the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department hardly blinked at the bottle that narrowly missed a participant in the march, and ignored taxis that aggressively revved through the inconveniencing crowd, should the police not take note of an invasive and seemingly illegal drone? But short of shooting it down, how would they trace it? It displayed no name or brand; as the march gained momentum it simply buzzed off out of sight.

Marie Huchzermeyer teaches in the department of architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand

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