Western Cape EMS finally gets a certificate

It has taken three years to get here, but the Western Cape Heath Department’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) finally got their own Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) Operating Certificate delivered by the South African Civil Aviation Authority yesterday.

And if you have seen them celebrating like kids with new toys on the streets, please do not begrudge them – an operator’s licence is not something the SACAA enjoys doling out; the aviation regulator had handed out only 64 licences since the applications were opened five years ago.

The EMS are joining a really exclusive club in South Africa.

Obviously in anticipation of a faster processing of their application, the EMS had already purchased a fleet of fifteen drones last year, which they planned to use for search and rescue missions around the province, starting with operations around the tourist resort of Table Mountains in the City of Cape Town.

The licence grants the EMS permission to fly their small autonomous vehicles over national key points; areas that the government considers too important to mess with.

“We are excited to be the first (government entity) to be get a licence,” said Nomafrench Mbombo, the Western Cape Health Member of the Executive Council (MEC), during an interview with a local network, ENCA, yesterday. “We are obviously grateful to the civil aviation authority for taking us through the whole licencing process.

“As a department which prides itself on innovation in healthcare, we are continually exploring new ways and creating strategies that will improve our service to communities in the Western Cape. The EMS’ Drone Project will revolutionise the manner in which search and rescue incidents are conducted, particularly as we move into a period when the contributions of our men and women in green will be paramount.

“As many residents and visitors will be hiking, fishing and swimming, undesirable incidents can happen without warning. We urge people to always exercise caution and follow COVID-19 safety measures. Therefore, we look forward to a timeous and cost-effective method of attending to incidents that are out of reach,” 

The drones will also be used to fight fires during the fire season in the province.

“The drones will help us locate patients and lost people so they can be rescued a lot sooner that they would be, if drones are not involved,” says Fabian Higgins, EMS Flight Operations Manager. “The thermal imaging on the drone’s camera will help with locating people through identifying heat signatures in areas that the naked eye cannot see.”

The pioneer drone pilots in the Western Cape EMS

Higgins is one of the five pioneer drone pilots involved in the project – others are Jason Higgins; Mark Webster; Zane Johnson and Carlo Adonis, all of whom underwent extensive training in Johannesburg to complete the SACAA requirements for drone operating qualifications and skills.

The local aviation regulator has not endeared itself to the South African drone community, whose many members have seen their hopes to acquiring operator’s licences fade by the year. Last year, the authority issued 19 licences against a backdrop of hundreds of applications.

Applicants for an operator’s certificate must pass requirements that include background checks on all personnel employed to handle, deploy or store RPAS; and documents like a copy of the certificate of registration of each drone to be operated; a copy of the approval letter for each device to be operated; and an original operations manual containing the information required to demonstrate how the operator would ensure compliance with the regulations and safety standards, should accompany the application.

A maintenance programme in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions, whether through action or inspection should also be included.

The Western Cape government says it is also planning to incorporate drones into crime-fighting too, with officials pointing to the recent violent spate of muggings in and around Table Mountain National Park.


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