Drone surveillance: Police have upped their snooping capacity

Cape Town - Police have started using drones to gather information usually beyond their reach - to map out exactly where crimes are being committed and, without officers even having to move around, identify who is behind illegal activities.

This means it will likely become more difficult for criminals to try and conceal their activities as they will be monitored without them necessarily knowing it, from high above.

The use of drones was discussed at a national level during a police portfolio committee meeting in Parliament in August.

READ: Drones, social media snooping and cracking codes - SA's potential crackdown on gangs

Democratic Alliance MP Zakhele Mbhele had asked whether police could use drone surveillance for 24-hour monitoring of the homes of drug lords.

It emerged the devices would more likely be used for crowd control.

During the August meeting deputy national commissioner of policing Lieutenant General Sehlahle Masemola had said this type of surveillance was on the radar and drones were set to be approved.

However, some police teams are already making use of drones.

Aerial footage

In Kleinmond, a seaside town in the Western Cape which was the scene of violent protests on Wednesday, a drone was used on Thursday to collect aerial footage of the area.

Brigadier Donovan Heilbron, the police cluster commander for the Overberg, which includes the areas of Kleinmond, Gansbaai and Hermanus, said he had to use resources wisely to cover an extensive area.

READ: We have no space to honour the dead - Kleinmond resident

As such, where possible, he brought in resources and the services of other authorities, including law enforcement and private companies.

News24 understands the drone used in Kleinmond on Thursday does not belong to police, but another law enforcement unit.

According to legislation, drones, which are remotely piloted aircraft not used for personal interests need to be registered and operated according to related South African Civil Aviation Regulations.

Drone footage gives police an aerial view of an area. (Supplied)

Identifying perpetrators

Heilbron said it was being used in Kleinmond to identify those who had been involved in illegal activities.

Protesters in the area had turned violent on Wednesday, throwing petrol bombs at police and barricading roads.

On Thursday groups of people could be seen standing on the mountainside above an informal settlement where many of the protesters are apparently from.

The drone was used to get footage, of among other locations, the area where they were grouped.

"We've identified a lot of perpetrators based on the drone footage. We identify the face and then get a statement [from relevant parties to boost what the drone picks up]," Heilbron said.

'Smart policing'

Drone footage, he said, was also being used to clamp down on crimes including housebreakings in the seaside holiday town of Pringle Bay.

Heilbron said the devices were especially useful when there were situations when officers could not easily access an area.

"It's basically what you call smart policing," he said.

News24 briefly witnessed the drone in action in Kleinmond on Thursday.

At first it was so high up appeared as a speck in the sky.

As an officer manoeuvred it about using a handheld device, it then speedily zoomed toward the ground, hovered just above it for a while before it was landed in a parking area.

It did not emit a sound.

Police officers, at a joint operations centre set up in Kleinmond to deal with the violent protests, were then able to view the footage on a laptop.

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