The 2021 drone horoscope: Africa edition

We all know what the year 2020 was like to all of humanity.

We were all happy and looking forward to the start of another year – then just like that, we were stuck indoors, like rats whose only way out of their home has been barred by a trap. World famous cities were deserted as people scrambled to return a virulent global virus back into Pandora’s box where it belongs.

And it was, and continues to be, played live wherever you get your media fix from – be it social or mainstream.

But for drones, the unfortunate circumstances that visited the human race provided an opportunity to fill in a gap that had never been open before, especially in the medical drone delivery space, where drone start-ups like Swoop Aero, Wingcopter and Zipline soared, delivering emergency medical supplies and COVID-19 equipment to places human contact was required to be minimal.

Other commercial drone activities took off too. Humanitarian robotics organisation, WeRobotics established more Flying Labs on the continent, South Africa launched a drone mother body, the Africa Drone and Data Academy in Malawi was born to churn out more home-grown drone robotics engineers.

And of course, there was the long running saga pitting DJI – the world’s biggest drone maker; against their largest commercial drone market, the USA – which the company so wishes would not follow them into the new year. Espionage allegations has led to the Chinese company losing lucrative contracts in the USA and Japan; threatening its stranglehold on the worldwide drone market.

We got in touch with a few drone professionals and organisations in Africa, to pick their brain on their expectations for their beloved industry in the year 2021. First up was Simon Robinson, the founder of Inspire Africa, whose company uses drone to deliver Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) education and coding lessons to thousands of students in Southern Africa.

The following are Simon’s 2021 perspectives on:

Drone contribution to COVID-19 response

The year 2020 brought about a large awakening to the vast socio-economic chasm we have in both South Africa and the rest of the continent. One of the positive things to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic was that it expedited the development of technology to help fight this worldwide disaster. On the drone front, there were cases across the globe where drones were utilised to stop the spread of the virus through medical supply delivery, aerial spraying of public areas to disinfect potentially contaminated areas as well as the monitoring and guidance of public spaces during the lockdown and quarantine periods.

Although many of these applications were limited to certain countries and cities, the greater public were exposed to many of the positive benefits drone technology can have when all the various stakeholders work together.

Training and integration of more players into the industry

As the adoption of drone technology increases and the industry matures, along with more efficient licensing and regulation from the respective stakeholders, the career opportunities and skills development in the sector will increase. However, there is a real need for education and training to take place at a primary and secondary school level and the relevant tertiary education skills development programmes launched to meet the needs of the industry. Across Africa, large organisations such as UNICEF are helping to grow economies through drone technology and pilot training programmes. It is in East Africa where some of the most progressive drone applications are emerging and largely due to government stakeholders who realise the importance the drone industry can play in emerging markets.

Drones in the classroom. Picture: Inspire Africa


It may not have happened in Africa yet, but one of the most significant developments in drone regulations for 2021 has come from the European Union where drone regulations have been standardised across the continent, following a risk-based approach. This is a momentous change and positive step towards having clear standardised regulations that are specific to the requirements and risks of UAV flight.

With the myriad of positive benefits commercial applications drones offer, it is encouraging to see within the African continent, Kenya and Rwanda in particular adopting regulations that encourage the growth of their drone industries rather than trying to overburden drone pilots and operators with cumbersome regulations. Their ability to streamline the licensing of a growing sector of drone related businesses is allowing their markets to benefit from drone technology and solutions being developed locally and best in breed from across the globe. Whilst at the same time, many of their African neighbours are being bogged down by red tape and inefficient administration and left behind as their civil aviation authorities and transports departments delay progressive solutions to speed up development.

Drone industry growth areas

With the growing acceptance of many of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4iR) technologies in society, we have witnessed and will continue to see a steady growth in both drone hardware and software applications, along with a growing diversity of the utilisation of drone technology integrating across Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Robotics, 3D Printing, Big Data and Virtual Reality.

Drones have become household items used for both education and entertainment purposes and so we are beginning to see the drone boom here in Africa as a generation accustomed to seeing and working with them enters the marketplace. Not dissimilar to how the evolution of passenger car development has benefitted from research and development, and race track testing of new technologies in Formula One, so too we are seeing recreational and commercial drone hardware and software benefitting from the huge research and development effort and focus in recent years that the military and aerospace industries have placed on drones filtering into the consumer market.

Personal aspirations and outlook for 2021

Inspire Africa has made great strides over the last few years in growing awareness through our various drone and other fourth industrial revolution programmes, courses and curricula. We have already established our Inspire STEAM Drone Coding programme in 49 schools across southern Africa and we have also launched programmes for online students and home education.

In 2021 we will focus on creating further awareness of the industry, demystifying and exposing primary and secondary school students to the respective career opportunities the drone industry presents, along with creating career paths in manufacturing, software development and drone flying operations with relevant tertiary education stakeholders and partners. I am very optimistic that Inspire Africa will make great strides this year as we continue to make an impact expanding across the African continent. We are actively seeking partners in African markets who are aligned to our vision and mission for drone utilisation to become a leading 4iR technology.

You can check out Inspire Africa on their website.

Outlook from other Industry players.

UAV Aerial Works

Notwithstanding the challenges in 2020, we are fortunate to have had a satisfactory year and on the back of that, expect steady growth for UAV Aerial Works in 2021.  Our successes in the General Insurance industry have set the scene for some exciting new projects this year in that space.

We also expect to grow our footprint throughout South Africa for both UAV Aerial Works in the surveying and inspection space, and Drone Guards for aerial security surveillance where we are strategically partnering with security companies.

Commercial Unmanned Aerial Association of Southern Africa (CUAASA).

Going into 2021, CUAASA will continue to support the government initiatives launched in 2020, that focus on driving growth and access for the drone industry – Creating jobs, up-skilling our people within the 4IR environment, business incubation and industry massification. CUAASA worked closely with the Drone Council of South Africa on a Legislative, Regulatory and Licencing Environment White Paper which contributed to the Digital Economy Masterplan ultimately submitted to the Presidential 4IR Commission. 

Our overall aim is to get more drones into the air – safely, securely and with respect to everyone’s right to privacy.

The discussions of potentially moving away from the commercial licensing model to the categorisation model continue in earnest – these topics include Drone ID, integration of all drones into our airspace using UTM (Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management), and enforcement.


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