What should Africa do to win the Game of Drones?
The just ended Drones and Unmanned Aviation Conference 2021 had experts covering various issues that included the legislative and regulatory situation in Africa and in general and South Africa in particular, the hard yards that need to be covered if the continent is to gain higher value from drone technology, drone applications in various industries, the benefits of international organisation engaging local drone companies as a long term solutions to fixing local problems; among many other discussions held over the course of two days.
With a speaking panel that comprised Irvin Phenyane and Kelebogile Molopyane (Drone Council of South Africa); Kim James, Bertus Van Zyl, Andre Swart (Aerial UAV Works); Tawanda Chihambakwe (Zimbabwe Flying Labs); Daniel Blomerus (Unicorn Insurance Brokers); Simon Robinson (Inspire Africa); Dean Polley (SASS); Jacques Coetzee (GoUAV); Sonet Kock (AVI Comply) and Ian Melamed (Pro Wings) – the conference ran on the theme of lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the world, and also sparked a new rise in drone innovations, especially in medical delivery.
Drone logistics companies like Zipline have seen their fortunes turn for the better in the wake of Coronavirus – witnessing their mileage soar exponentially in countries like Rwanda and Ghana, as they opened new routes to deliver emergency medical supplies in areas where roads were impassable or did not exist, especially in the rainy season.
In this light, it was grating to learn at the conference that Zipline did try to establish a base in South Africa but was turned down by the government – apparently on the pretext that South Africa had a more vastly superior air transport network, to that of Rwanda for instance; and adding drones to that mix could spell mayhem in the skies.
Well; we know delivery drones are getting traction in countries that do have a more congested air transport system than south Africa too – Alphabet (the parent company of Google), online retailer, Amazon and parcel delivery services provider UPS are fighting for dominance on the drone delivery front in the USA – and the country has not expressed unease with air traffic management as yet.
Actually – as argued by Dean Polley, the managing Director of SASS in his paper – countries like the UK are looking for ways to integrate drones alongside manned aeroplanes in the skies. It is just a question of how to do it; and it was for that reason that companies, municipalities and governments worldwide are working towards comprehensive Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) and Unmanned Air Mobility (UAM) systems that will constitute seamless synergies between manned and unmanned aviation in urban areas. In Reading, in the UK, they have opened a drone corridor where delivery drones will have priority and can fly without worrying about other air traffic.
It was the failure by the South African government to realise this potential economic opportunity in drone technology that have seen the country lag behind in the delivery drone space, and the drone economy in general; as decried by the Chairperson of the Drone Council of South Africa, Irvin Phenyane.
“South Africa used to lead the continent on drone technology,” Phenyane said, emphasising on used to be. And to all intents and purposes, South Africa does still lead the continent on the sheer number of industries that are increasingly incorporating drones into their operations – agriculture, mining, GIS, survey and mapping, security, education, recreation, just to name a few.
The only caveat is that almost all of these application are in the private sector, with very little government operations taking root. The Zipline deal would have involved the government, but they rejected it; and now the only involvement the South African government has with drones is the tender for border surveillance drones that was flighted in August this year.
Looked at in this light, it would indeed feel like South Africa is lagging behind the technology in drones, and the slow pace at which the local aviation authority is issuing operator licences further steeps the government in dimmer light. Four years to the day the Part 101 regulations where promulgated, only 64 ROC licences have been issued to date, from hundreds of applications.
It does make for grim reading.
Not that the delegates to the conference were discouraged by this though; for the conference was energetic in finding solution to regulations and other problems faced by the drone industry in its infancy. Everybody was upbeat that the birth of the Drone Council of South Africa was the first solid step towards gaining government trust in promoting drone technology in official channels.
You can follow proceedings to the conference in a series of videos here.