A drone that can bombard a crowd with 80 doses of pepper spray in a single second is taking to the skies.
South African company Desert Wolf says it has taken an order for 25 of its Skunk unmanned aerial vehicles. Although it would not divulge the name of the buyer, the firm did say the drone would be used by an international mining operation.
The company describes the Skunk as a "riot control copter." A single operator can fly several Skunk drones flying in formation. Each Skunk boasts eight electric motors with 16-inch propellors, lifting 45kg and carrying 4,000 pepper spray paintballs, plastic balls or other "non-lethal" ammunition.
It's armed with four high-pressure paintball guns capable of firing at up to 20 bullets per second each, meaning up to 80 rounds can blanket a crowd every second.
The drone also includes on-board speakers to warn crowds, as well as bright strobe lights and "blinding lasers" to disorientate victims. Blinding lasers are prohibited for use in war under the auspices of the Geneva Convention.
"These weapons cannot be sufficiently well controlled to avoid causing serious injury, especially to eyes," warns Mark Gubrud of campaign group the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. "Many existing "non-lethal" crowd-control weapons can and often do kill."
Desert Wolf sells off-road trailers and equipment, and has diversified into high-tech surveillance and UAVs. The company's managing director told the BBC today that it is also finalising orders of the Skunk from "mines in South Africa, some security companies in South Africa and outside South Africa, some police units outside South Africa and a number of other industrial customers."
Mines in South Africa have in recent years proved a flashpoint for clashes between civilians and security forces or police. In 2o12, a riot at a Lonmin mine in Marikana saw the deadliest use of force by South African security forces since the end of apartheid, leaving 34 dead and 78 wounded in a single day. The clashes prompted protests across the country.
Another example of a drone weaponised with non-lethal force is the Chaotic Unmanned Personal Intercept Drone (CUPID), a concept taking flight at this year's South by Southwest festival in March. CUPID is armed with an 80,000-volt stun gun. Fortunately the high-voltage drone is not for sale.
Mark Gubrud is clear on the implications of such devices. "The use of remote-controlled drones to police or attack civilian individuals or groups with violent force is an offense against human dignity and a threat to democratic sovereignty," he says. "It is also a potential precursor to scenarios in which the robots would operate fully autonomously, choosing their own targets outside of human control."