Drone Council SA to hit ground running

Commercial drones have become a big – a very big – business in the world, and South Africa wants a slice of the pie.

In 2019, reputable research organisation, Research and Markets put the value of the world drone market at $14billion, predicting it to grow to around $24billion by 2024. The report confirmed that the Southern African country had the biggest drone market in Africa, with a growing number of applications in agriculture, mining, GIS, construction, among a few industries where drone technology had caught early.

But Irvin Phenyane, chairperson of the newly launched Drone Council of South Africa wants a wholly revamped drone economy that maximises value across the drone supply chain.

“Many people still see drones as toys, for playing with, or for just taking pictures,” said Phenyane in a recent interview with a local radio station, SAFM. “But for us drone technology goes deeper. Drones are used in agriculture for crop spraying; in the security industry for surveillance; they can be used to haul stuff in smart factories in the manufacturing industry. In Rwanda, Malawi and Ghana, they are using drones to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.”

He is right; Ghana, Rwanda and Malawi have been leading the African curve in as far as drone technology in health delivery is concerned. Health delivery drone company Zipline has made thousands of deliveries of emergency medical supplies and equipment in Rwanda and Ghana since 2016, and had to expand their services to delivering medical equipment to fight COVID-19 when the pandemic struck early this year. Malawi has been doing the same with Wingcopter, a German drone start-up.

Phenyane bemoaned the fact that South Africa do not have the same structures for widespread use of drone technology in health service delivery. The only legal health drones in south Africa right now are those under the aegis of the South African National Blood Services, which use them to urgently transport blood around Johannesburg. Drones have also been used by the Greater Tzaneen Municipality in Limpopo Province – but only as a flying loudspeaker to inform and educate people below about their responsibilities during these difficult times.

The SANBS drone is the only entity currently directly involved with medical delivery drones

The other industries could fare better if obtaining a drone licence was easier and more friendly; instead the process of registering a drone, obtaining a pilot’s licence to fly it and operating it could have you paying through a list of 25 requirements before the South African Civil Aviation Authority declares your drone operations legal. There have been complaints from the drone community about the length of the registration process; as a result, a report by drone company Rocketmine revealed that there were only 20 remote operator certificates issued by SACAA by 2018, and an additional four given to remote pilot training institutions.

These issues, according to the DCSA, need addressing.

“What we are saying as the drone council is that there is a capacity for South Africa to manufacture drone and design software for them. And we need to have the capacity to have drones that monitor other drones. We want to add value to the entire value chain of the drone economy – from their design until they are handed to the final consumer.”

Phenyane said the new drone body was hoping to start training 3,000 pilots countrywide soon; adding that they had a capacity for training 30,000 pilots per annum.

Research and Markets conclude that the majority of commercial drones are used in the service industry, with the energy sector ruling the roosts. Transportation and warehousing drones are closing the gap though and have taken over as the fastest growing industry. Drone software is also taking massive strides.

In terms of applications, Inspection drones led the pack, but the greatest growth was expected in delivers drones.

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