Police and aviation officials are on a collision course over plans to deploy a fleet of unmanned surveillance aircraft above stadiums during the 2010 soccer World Cup.

The radio-controlled, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are slightly bigger than model aircraft, fitted with camera equipment that enables security officials to monitor events on the ground.

Police spokesman Director Sally De Beer confirmed police are “definitely going to acquire” several UAVs, although the exact model had still to be decided.

“As I understand it we would be getting the smaller ones that would be flying at lower altitudes. We are hoping to acquire them by the end of 2009 ,” said De Beer.

However, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) this week said UAV’s were technically illegal. A formal request from the police to discuss the matter had yet to be received, said spokesman Phindiwe Gwebu.

“The SACAA is concerned regarding the operation of UAVs as these aircraft do not conform to civil airworthiness requirements,” Gwebu said.

The safety concerns relate mainly to the possibility of collisions with other aircraft or UAVs dropping out of the sky. “Whereas a manned helicopter/ small aircraft can ‘see and avoid’ other air traffic, the (UAVs) can not and they will need to ‘sense and avoid’ other aircraft. This technology has not been developed yet,” Gwebu said.

The planned purchase of police UAVs is part of a R650-million procurement drive to help officials with crowd management and crime prevention. There are also plans to invest in water cannons, mobile command centres and bullet-proof vests.

Defence analyst Leon Engelbrecht said UAVs have been used in South African airspace — by the military during the 1994 elections. The military were exempt from normal aviation regulations, he added.

He said the latest UAVs vary in size from American surveillance aircraft with a wingspan the size of a Boeing 737 to tiny, insect-size models.

PUBLICATION: The Times
AUTHOR: Bobby Jordan
DATED: 2nd May 2009