A unnamed mining company has placed the first order for 25 octa copter drones that can fire pepper spray bullets that its creator says can disperse a crowd without endangering security staff, a move that horrifies an international union organization.
"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," International Trade Union Confederation spokesman Tim Noonan told BBC News.
South Africa-based Desert Wolf, which is marketing the "Skunk Riot Control Copter"
drone told The BBC that it sold the first units to the mining company after putting the technology on display at a London trade show.
"We received an order for 25 units just after," said Desert Wolf managing director Hennie Kieser. "We cannot disclose the customer, but I am allowed to say it will be used by an international mining house. We are also busy with a number of other customers who want to finalize their orders."
Those companies include mines in South Africa, security companies inside and outside the country, some police units outside South Africa, and "a number of other industrial customers," Kieser said.
Noonan said his organization will take up the issue "as a matter of urgency with the unions in the mining sector globally," while trying to identify which company ordered the devices.
According to Desert Wolf's website, the Skunk Riot drone is fitted with four high-capacity paintball barrels that can fire up to 20 bullets a second. The firms says that in addition to pepper spray bullets, the weapon can also be loaded with dye-marker balls and solid plastic balls.
It can hold up to 4,000 bullets at a time, as well as on-board speakers to send warnings to a crowd and "blinding lasers" to target protesters.
Kieser said his company plans to invite clients to see further demonstration flights in Africa, Europe, and North and South America in upcoming months, and that it "designed and developed the Skunk because of a huge safety risk that had to be addressed," he added.
He referenced a violent strike at the Lonmin Marikana platinum mine in South Africa, which resulted in 44 deaths that included local police, saying that non-lethal equipment such as his company's drone can help avoid similar incidents. However, he pointed out that Lonmin was not the client with the 25-drone order.
However, Noel Sharkey, who chairs the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, said he fears such drones will suppress legitimate protests while serving as torture devices.
"Firing plastic balls or bullets from the air will maim and kill," he told The BBC. "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."
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