SA Drone Council: “Let’s make history; lest we be history.”
Having promised to hit the ground running at the launch of the Drone Council of South Africa in July, the council says it has already engaged drone industry players and other stakeholders to expedite growth in an industry that the chairperson thinks has lost valuable time in catching up with the best on the continent and in the world.
In his opening remarks at the DCSA’s annual general meeting held on Tuesday, September 8, council chairperson Irvine Phenyane exhorted fellow members and stakeholders to work harder “so we make history, lest we become history. We lost our place ahead of the race and we want to catch up and be first in Africa again.”
“Over the past 3 months our strategy roadmap towards 2023, which we call “Operation Catch Up 2023” was presented to various government departments, industry stakeholders and regulators,” said Phenyane. “But today is about formalising the work that has been done. The message has been very clear for us; if we want to take ourselves seriously as a country, we need to focus on one thing for the next three years. We need to develop a Drone Country Strategy within the next six months.”
As a country, South Africa does have a vibrant drone value chain, with successful applications mainly in the survey and mapping; mining and agriculture sectors. However, most of these drone applications are by private players, with very little or no governmental support. It is only recently that municipalities are starting to embrace drone technology to help them with service delivery, especially in GIS and mapping. The municipalities of Drakenstein in the Western Cape Province, Buffalo City in Eastern Cape and Gert Sibande in Mpumalanga for instance, have been seconding personnel for training seminars to prepare them for the incorporation of drone technology in their operations.
The glaring elephant in the room however, has been almost non-existent use of drone technology in government-supported emergency drone delivery services, which have prospered with government support in countries like Ghana and Rwanda, where Zipline, and American drone delivery service provider, has made hundreds of thousands of trips, delivering emergency medical supplies like blood to areas that are inaccessible via road transport. When the COVID-19 disaster struck, Zipline simply expanded their operations to include the transport of essential equipment like personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing kits.
The closest South Africa has come to deploying drones in the health sector is through the South Africa National Blood Service (SANBS), which has a drone that transports blood urgently where it is needed around Johannesburg. A state owned company, Sentech, recently called for tenders for the supply of drones to patrol South Africa’s borders, but beyond that, government involvement with drone technology has mostly been at regulations level, where they have issued around 60 operator’s licences in the four years that Part 101 drone regulations have been in existence.
It is a situation that the country has to rectify, according to Phenyane.
“The Drone Council needs to have a consultative approach with all stakeholders and need to ensure that people know what the Industry entails,” he said. “Drones play a very important role in our economy; they are used in anti-poaching, construction, maritime, infrastructure development, banking and insurance amongst other uses. Since we launched in July, we have presented the business case to various stakeholders and indicated challenges that have been experienced. The aim was to demystify the drone industry.
“To date we have managed to engage with various Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) Colleges and also presented to the Department of Education, finalising a Memorandum of Understanding with regard to processes of civil aviation and to ensure that training is aligned to the Transport Education Training Authority (TETA). We will be looking at 100 entities to be incubated and are also engaging with various Sector Education Training Authorities (SETA).
Phenyane reiterated the importance of drone technology in the various sectors of the country’s economy, and added that his council will double its efforts in explaining the benefits of drones an economic tool – if used effectively – to government departments in the country. Launched in July this year, the Drone Council South Africa’s mission is to facilitate the growth of the drone industry in South Africa through collaborative efforts of industry players, government and other stakeholders. At its launch, it was revealed by Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams that the council will be incubated by the Department of Communication and Digital Technologies, which she leads.