It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a crowd-suppression drone?

South African firm offering something new in crowd-control: a drone armed with plastic bullets

You knew it was only a matter of time.

A South African company has begun selling a new crowd-suppression tool that, according to reports, can spray up to 20 plastic bullets or paintballs per second. From the air. Yes, it’s a drone, and the first customers apparently are South African mine companies, which have been wracked by labor unrest over wages and working conditions.

So the Pinkerton guards of old have become high-tech remote-controlled observation and assault systems.

The manufacturer, Desert Wolf of South Africa, told the BBC that its new Skunk drone (yes, there’s something in a name) could reduce violence by replacing on-the-ground security forces confronting striking workers or other protesters with airborne monitoring and attack drones. The machines carry speakers for addressing crowds and lasers to blind them, video cameras for close observation and recorded surveillance, and the ability to tag individuals in the crowd with color-specific paintballs, i.e., red for someone suspected of vandalizing, blue for someone perceived to be inciting violence, etc.

Oh, and it can fire pepper spray and those little hard plastic bullets. A lot of them, quickly. And from above, a potentially deadly rain of “crowd suppression.”

The International Trade Union Confederation was less enamored with the new drones than the people at Desert Wolf.

“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,” ITUC spokesman Tim Noonan told the BBC. “We will be taking this up as a matter of urgency with the unions in the mining sector globally.”

More than unions should be concerned. Desert Wolf, which introduced the drone at a London trade show last month, says it will market the devices worldwide and already has been in talks with “some security companies in South Africa and outside South Africa, some police units outside South Africa and a number of other industrial customers.” It plans to set up demonstrations for potential customers in the Americas and Europe as well.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle

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