South Africa hoping to locally manufacture drone components

A South African government official has reiterated her country’s commitment to winning the tech race, through local production of some technology products, including drone technology components.

During her annual budget presentation yesterday, the minister of Communications and Digital Technology, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said the South African government’s immediate focus in the tech race was to locally manufacture some tech hardware and software, creating employment opportunities in the process.

“The sourcing of locally manufactured products remains key priority focus under the Department’s Digital Economy Masterplan and the 4IR Programme,” said Ndabeni-Abrahams. “Together with the industry, we have identified a number of products that can be locally produced: these include phones and accessories; manufacturing of components for 5G network infrastructure expansion; sensors and telematics which includes lidar, smart metres for water and electricity and other tracking applications; and satellites and drone components.

“As part of the implementation of these programmes, the Department is working with the DTIC to facilitate the establishment and operationalisation of an ICT Special Economic Zone (SEZ). To date, suitable land has been identified where this SEZ will be situated. The two Departments are working towards the digital products I mentioned for local manufacturing, with government procurement capacity being utilised as a lever to enable the sector.”

Promises made.

Now we wait to see if they will become promises kept.

Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams

The South African government has made some giants strides with the local drone community since last year, when they allowed themselves a supporting stake in the creation of a new drone body, the Drone Council of South Africa, which Ndabeni-Abrahams herself launched in July of the same year.

The country has remained a top market for drone technology in Africa, despite some self-inflicted as well as beyond-control challenges, with several drone operators offering drone-based solutions for various commercial applications like agriculture, mining, security, GIS and construction.

Some companies with roots in the country, like Rocketmine and TerraCam, have expanded into parts of the continent and even beyond.

Sadly though – save for sporadic demonstrations now and again – the country’s delivery drone game, has been almost non-existent. The South African National Blood Service has one drone earmarked for delivering emergency blood and blood products to wherever they are needed within a 150-kilometre radius; but for years now it has stayed confined into its hangar; because the organisation has not yet had its operating certificate approved.

Besides, it was revealed last year that South Africa rebuffed the advances of Zipline to launch their medical drone operations in the country.

It was no surprise then that, when the DCSA was launched, the new council acknowledged that it needed to catch up with countries like Rwanda, which had taken the plunge early and invested in medical drone technology, when South Africa was still admiring its newly minted drone laws, whose wholesome effect was to inhibit technology development, rather than doing the opposite.

“When our department was mandated to champion the Fourth Industrial Revolution, one of the things we identified was the need to establish a solid foundation for drone operations in SA,” noted Ndabeni-Abrahams at the DCSA launch last year. “We then introduced drone piloting programmes in partnership with the Media, Information and Communication Technologies Sector Education and Training Authority, which will play a key role in driving the digital economy.

“However, as policy-makers, we hadn’t created the right regulations and legislations to create an enabling environment to accelerate drone services in SA. The Department of Transport has since compiled a report which details how the legislations will work going forward.”

Ndabeni-Abrahams made the remarks in agreement with the DCSA’s inaugural chairperson, Irvine Phenyane who had bemoaned the government’s frustrating response to drone technology’s arrival, which meant South Africa lost on many early opportunities; having started so well in the delivery drone space with the e-Juba drone around 2015.

Perhaps it was due to the intervention of the council that the country’s aviation regulator, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) has started issuing out operating certificates to other commercial drone service providers in numbers that have not been seen since drone laws were introduced into the country. It was a very welcome, if unexpected, development in the country’s drone industry.

The industry will also be certainly buoyed by the fact that the government itself in recent times has been dabbling with deploying drones to operations that include border management, national utility infrastructure monitoring, as well as policing.

This drone was proudly made in Rwanda

But after this introductory, end-user phase, the next step on the drone value chain in Africa has always involved entrenching the local drone economy through localising production of the drones themselves and their related hardware and software.

Maybe manufacturing small drone components is a good place start; although some enterprising start-ups on the continent, like Charis UAS in Rwanda and Niger’s Drone Africa Service have already gone one better and manufactured local drone prototypes for commercial applications.

Developments like these, remarkable as they are for the continent as a whole, are what makes it especially grating for the South African industry, because it knows it should have been here five years ago, when professor Barry Mendelow and his colleagues at arms manufacturer Denel made a delivery drone that was supposed to be the end of all medical delivery problems in rural South Africa.

It knows it should have long passed the elementary phase way back in 2012 when Rolf Schlub returned from his stint at SenseFly in Switzerland and launched TerraCam, one of the pioneer drone service enterprises in the whole of Africa.

But a combination of hurdles, including regulatory minefields, put paid to those hopes and took the country back several steps, which they are taking time to recover.

As Phenyane said when launching the DCSA last year; “The accelerated growth of the drone industry is paramount to the economic growth of our country. Many developing countries are now using drone technology in many industries like town planning, project monitoring, rail services, road maintenance, crop spraying, delivery of goods and the security industry.”

And according to Ndabeni-Abrahams, it is time to take back those gains of many years ago, especially in this period of the pandemic, which has required some serious thing outside the box.

“I take this platform at the time of convergence between two opposing forces namely, the crisis and despair, brought about by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” the minister said.

“We must agree that every crisis brings shock and new opportunities. While the pandemic has brought about social and economic shock in our country and our people, we must look into the need to navigate these difficult times through identification of opportunities to take our country and our people to a greater pedestal.”


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