SA issues first delivery drone ROC

The brainchild that Jonathan Louw conceived has finally, finally seen the light of day.

We know every Remote Operator’s Certificate issued by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) is cause for celebration, as it signifies a massive win for the local drone industry.

But this is for emergency medical services delivery, man.

It is for saving lives.

Finally, the South African National Blood Services (SANBS) can flaunt their delivery drone, the Tron F9, for its large fixed wings and rotors have now been set loose, and its right to fly and deliver blood urgently to where it is needed in remote parts of South Africa has been granted.

The company has been trying to get certification to deliver blood since 2019 when then CEO Jonathan Louw and his team launched Project BloodWing, where they intended to make deliveries in remote parts of KwaZulu Natal and the eastern Cape provinces.

“Congratulations to the South African National Blood Services (SANBS) for obtaining their drone license (ROC) from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) to deliver blood and essential medical samples using drones,” said drone services company Ntsu Aviation, which helped the SANBS with the certification process.

“The SANBS launched the Project BloodWing in May 2019 with the intension to deliver blood to people in remote areas of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. In 2021 August, SANBS appointed Ntsu Aviation Solutions (Pty) Ltd to advise and assist with SACAA compliance process and accreditation.

“Well-done to NTSU and the incredible SANBS drone-team for their efforts and ground breaking achievement. This is the first approval to be issued by the SACAA for drone delivery in South Africa!”

The Tron F9

The blood transfusion services organisation chose German drone maker and solutions provider Quantum-Systems; and the later suggested the Tron F9 drone, which has a flight range of 100km and a speed capacity of 180km/hour. It can carry four units of bloods worth 2kg; and has the capacity to carry other payloads on the way back, like blood samples that can help the organisation find blood matches faster.

The two teams from SANBS and Quantum-Systems worked hard to make a drone perfect for specialised medical delivery at speed.

Amit Singh, SANBS Senior Manager for Service Delivery, was there throughout the design process.

“The partnership has been very positive,” he said, referring to his team’s working relationship with their counterparts from Quantum-Systems.

“The advice, guidance and collaboration has paved the way to where we are and what the future may look like.

Florian (Siebel, Quantum-Systems CEO) and his team believe in the goodness of this project (#Drones4Good) and that is evident by the time and effort the team has given and not to mention the number of work packages provided at no cost to SANBS (being an NPO, this goes a long way).

Our interaction (SANBS and QS teams) over the past year has been amazing, you would think we knew each other for years. I have not been disappointed to date, we have had our disagreements but at the end of the day, we did what was in SANBS’s best interest.”

Singh’s then CEO, Jr Jonathan Louw was also heavily invested in the project from the get go.

“We had a discussion with the department of health to discuss how to help people in rural areas, and hence the drone project was born,” he said at the launch of Project BloodWing in 2019.

“We believe this will be a milestone in the history of blood transfusion, not only in South Africa, but in the entire world.”

And a milestone indeed it was. Although, even by 2019 standards, South Africa was already three or four years too late to the medical drone party it has ironically been leading in 2015, when Emeritus Professor at Wits University, Barry Mendelow gave a lecture in Johannesburg about the research he had been doing for the greater part of a decade, in partnership with stakeholders who included arms manufacturer, Denel.

Their work resulted in the development of the e-Juba, a preliminary proof of concept UAV designed to facilitate the transportation of microbiological test samples for tuberculosis patients from the 5,000 remote rural clinics to the 603 National Health Laboratory Service Laboratories (NHLS) dotted around the country.

Since then, drone logistics companies that include Zipline, Wingcopter and Swoop Aero have launched sustained medical logistics operations in the DR Congo, Rwanda, Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi and Mozambique; where they are transporting all manner or medical supplies and blood to destinations that were previously impossible to reach.

Now, it seems South Africa are finally on true lift-off in medical drone logistics; even more impressively doing that with a locally made drone prototype.

The only African country to have done so far that is Madagascar, where AerialMetric has been delivering medicines with their locally made drone since 2016. 

The BVLOS licence also makes the SANBS the first in South to be granted such a licence, which has prompted Ntsu Aviation to describe it as the most complex drone operation to be approved by the SACAA since drone regulations were promulgated in 2015.

As a drone-based healthcare provision services, the SANBS can now use their drones to connect remote healthcare facilities for better service delivery; deliver much-needed medical supplies to remote or rural healthcare facilities in a faster and more efficient way; as well as accelerate the delivery of medicines, vaccines, or snake bite antitoxins.

We look forward to spying the Tron on missions to save lives soon.

1 Comment

  • Chris Hitchcock Reply

    3 August 2022 at 09:43

    I don’t see the awarding of a ROC as a win for the industry. It’s more an affirmation of the stupidity of the system,

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