Drones for South Africa’s rail tracks?
Just a month after announcing plans to use drone technology to beef up security on its borders, the South African government has revealed another drone-based plan – this time to help secure rail infrastructure that has suffered severely from vandalism.
This was announced by the country’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, during a virtual National Council of Provinces (NCOP) held on Tuesday, October 27, 2020.
“The continued damage, sabotage, theft and vandalism of rail infrastructure in one of the worst forms of economic crimes in our country,” said the president, in response to a question during the virtual meeting. “It has a direct impact and bearing on the lives of millions of South Africans who rely on commuter rail services to travel to work and to study. We are taking decisive measures to improve security on these rail lines; the National Treasury has granted approval of R900 million for the implementation of the PRASA (Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa) Security Plan to combat theft and vandalism of the rail infrastructure.
“Part of the plan is to immediately appoint security personnel and to deploy remotely piloted aircraft systems to conduct virtual patrols of high-risk infrastructure. This capability will work together with specialised investigations and armed response.”
Ramaphosa himself does have a war story to share when it comes to the levels of dilapidation in the country’s passenger rail system; campaigning for his African national congress (ANC) party during the 2019 elections, the president got stuck in a stationary train for three hours while travelling from Mabopane train station to Bosman train station in the capital, Tshwane, where he was scheduled to disembark, attend a meeting with high level party officials before proceeding to the main campaign rally.
Twice, the train got stuck at different pick up points; and as you may have guessed, Ramaphosa was late for his meeting, and his campaign plan in the train went awry as commuters – already late for another day – ditched the overcrowded fateful ride for other forms of transportation.
For the commuters, it was just another day on the rail tracks of a crumpling transport whose infrastructure longed for rehabilitation, while for Ramaphosa – who, to his credit, stayed with his entourage for the whole ride, which finally rolled into Tshwane three hours late.
“The way people are transported is not ideal,” said the then presidential candidate Ramaphosa. “This not how we want to see working people being transported. Some of them are students and some of them are job seekers. It just really destroys their enthusiasm, getting them into a public transportation system like this. I am glad that I came and I have seen for myself. We are going to take steps to change the situation.”
Inspection drones on the railway lines will be the latest in a growing catalogue of commercial applications being trusted in drone technology in South Africa; with the government also announcing plans to deploy unmanned autonomous vehicles to better secure the border with northern neighbour, Zimbabwe early this month.
The government has actually flighted a tender for suppliers of border surveillance drones to bring in their bid documents in September, although at this point, we would like to add a disclaimer for readers to please do not hold our story to account on the word of politicians and government suits answering questions. We know how good they are at making plans, and how frustrating they can be at actually following their plans through.