The Mayor of London wants to buy three water cannon for riot control purposes. The Prime Minister supports him, but the Home Secretary has yet to give her approval.

The fact that water cannon are officially described not as non-lethal but ‘less lethal’ weapons, recognises the fact that injuries and deaths can result from their use. Then again, the inability (or unwillingness) of the police to deal effectively rioters can be pretty dangerous too – as we saw during the 2011 riots.

In any case, the water cannon issue may soon be obsolete – because a revolutionary riot control technology is about to become big news. Thanks to the civilian application of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology, we could see drones replacing police officers on the frontline against disorder.

As we’ve noted before on the Deep End, the drones are coming home with potentially profound implications for public policy. Indeed, according to Guy Martin of defenceWeb, the first riot control drones are already on the market:

“South African company Desert Wolf yesterday unveiled its Skunk riot control drone at the IFSEC security exhibition outside Johannesburg. Armed with four paintball guns, it can fire a variety of ammunition to subdue unruly crowds.

“The Skunk is designed to control crowds without endangering the lives of security staff. Bright strobe lights and on-board speakers enable operators to communicate with and warn the crowed. If things get out of control the Skunk can use its four paintball guns to disperse or mark people in the crowd.” 

Being shot at with paintballs by a flying robot is probably less fun than it sounds – but if a greater deterrent is required, the Skunk can up its game:

“Four ammunition hoppers can load different types of ammunition such as dye marker balls, pepper spray balls or solid plastic balls….”

According to the defenceWeb report, the manufacturer is busy fulfilling its first orders:

“Desert Wolf will soon deliver the first 25 units to customers in the mining industry and the UAV will enter service around June/July…”

This isn’t exactly the most reassuring context for the new technology. South Africa’s mines have a history of violent industrial conflict. Two years ago, 44 people (most of them striking miners) were killed during clashes with the police and security personnel at the Marikana mine near Rustenburg.

The question is whether the deployment of riot control drones would make such deaths more or less likely. One could argue that, given the precision of drone technology, it would be a lot safer than conventional riot-control methods – even in countries where the riot police don’t carry firearms.However, as with any other ‘less lethal’ weapons, things are bound to go wrong. For instance, the effect of a UAV – weighing tens of kilograms – crashing into a densely-packed crowd doesn’t bear thinking about.

Even if there are no malfunctions, one has to wonder what the mere sight of UAVs in action would do to the relationship between government and people. Imagine a swarm of drones hovering over a protest in Trafalgar Square – swooping down to take photographs, barking out orders, firing missiles – what would that say about our country?

Perhaps, we’ll be gradually habituated to the use of drones. The authorities could start off by using just a few for surveillance purposes, but then add to their numbers and capabilities step by step.

Where is all of this heading? Hopefully not with anything like the Chaotic Unmanned Personal Intercept Drone (CUPID) – an experimental UAV currently under development in Texas. Instead firing love darts, this system delivers an 80,000 volt electric shock.

You can see CUPID in action here – and if it doesn’t make your blood run cold, I don’t know what will.

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