SA wildlife conservation trust hits ground running following RPAS certification

Organisation to use drones to drop flappers on power cables in bid to save birds

Three years.

That is what it took for the Endangered Wildlife Trust to obtain their operating certificate from the South African Civil Aviation Authority.

Three years.

They have been patiently checking the mail for their Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Operator’s Certificate since 2017. That is a long time.

And it must be a South African standard too, because the handful other proud holders of that precious piece of paper took roughly the same time to acquire it. And it was longer for early adopters.

By comparison, one can get the operating certificate in about two months in the USA, after taking the applicant through almost the same process that takes three years in South Africa.

Small wonder then, that many commercial drone users in the country usually abandon their certification quest and choose to play hide and seek with the law.

It does seem though, that the aviation entity is waking up to the reality of drone technology spreading its irresistible charm across all sectors of the economy, which could explain why it has awarded operating certificates to the Western Cape Health Department’s Emergency Medical Services unit, as well as agricultural drone start-up, Integrated Aerial Systems in recent months.

For drone operators in the country who have been on the SACAA waiting list for their turn, this feels like confetti being thrown at a wedding couple. One is never stingy with confetti at a wedding.

And now that confetti has been tossed at EWT.

“Realising the variety of use cases for RPAS in conservation, the Endangered Wildlife Trust set out to become a legal drone operator in South Africa in 2017,” the trust wrote soon after acquiring their certificate in January this year. “The non-profit, corporate, and commercial use of drones is regulated by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), and organisations looking to operate within the legal framework enforced by the SACAA must obtain an RPAS Operating Certificate (ROC).

“Getting an ROC is quite onerous in terms of the various licences, registrations, and certifications an organisation must acquire – so much so that, unfortunately, many drone pilots are put off by this process and choose to operate illegally.”

As a wildlife conservation lobbyist, the EWT need drone technology for its many animal-saving ventures that include:

  • Surveys for birds, bird nests, and mammals for conservation purposes.
  • Topographical and vegetation surveys.
  • Provide aerial support to conservation teams during operations.
  • Assist authorities in locating injured animals, carcasses, poisoning, and poaching incidents.
  • Inspect and photograph electrical infrastructure for maintenance and survey purposes.
  • Use RPAS to elevate telemetry antenna to locate wildlife fitted with tracking devices.
  • Attach anti-collision devices to linear electrical infrastructure (using a system developed with the help of Eskom-Research, Development and Testing)
  • Operational assistance during electrical infrastructure maintenance.
  • Aerial photography and videography.
  • Assisting specialists with surveys relating to Environmental Impact Assessments and related audits.

“At its core, the EWT’s work is based on three strategic pillars – saving species, saving habitats and benefiting people. The EWT’s team of specialists are based across eastern and southern Africa, ensuring the protection of threatened species and ecosystems. Our critical work conducting applied research, supporting community-led conservation, training and building capacity, addressing human-wildlife conflict, monitoring threatened species and establishing safe spaces for wildlife range expansion.”

And since the efforts to trying to protect defenceless wildlife from humans actively trying to kill animals for their trophies, or unwittingly through setting up infrastructure like electricity powerlines in areas that wildlife calls home, the organisation needs all the help it can get.

Drones have been really helpful in this.

“The long road to obtaining an ROC culminates in a base inspection and a demonstration of operational competency,” said EWT. “We were delighted to have passed ours in December 2020 and received our ROC in January 2021. An ROC holder can only operate within its operational specification, which defines the general parameters of when, where, and how it can operate its RPAS.

Many birds are lost to powerline collisions in Eastern and Southern Africa

“In addition to this letter of intent to the SACAA, the first step of the ROC process further specifies the activities and services a ROC holder can provide. Thus, when we started the ROC process in 2017, we had to think very carefully about all the possible applications that would fit our mandate as a conservation organisation and the uses for RPAS that would benefit the EWT in general. In the end, we opted to keep the services listed on our letter of intent broad enough to encompass a wide variety of conservation activities.”

Once they received their certificate, the organisation wasted no time in putting it to good use, providing aerial imagery support to the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD) for the continuous monitoring of a Hippopotamus seen moving in and around residential areas in northern Johannesburg in January. The EWT worked with the conservation authorities to locate and monitor the Hippo’s movements to ensure that it made its way to less populated areas safely, without coming into conflict with the area’s residents.

We doubt though, that at the time of their first steps in applying for the RPAS certificate in 2017, the people at EWT imagined using drones to install flappers along powerlines, in an effort to save large birds that keep colliding on these electrically charged cables and getting electrocuted.

(Update – they are adamant that they always knew where they wanted to go with their drones)

Some might remember the sad case of that vulture in Israel that died when it hit a powerlines last June, while on its way back home to feed its then three-month old chick. The mother’s death left all the scavenging responsibility to the father, leaving the baby vulture in real danger of starving to death – until conservation activists came up with the novel mama drone idea, where they used a drone to bring food to the baby’s nest and supplement the father’s efforts.

According to the EWT, a lot of birds in South Africa meet the same fate, especially during dawn and dusk times of the day when the light is still poor and birds are either waking up or retuning home to roost.

One of the solutions to this problem is through fixing brightly coloured bird flight diverters, also known as flappers; to dangle from the powerlines in an effort to sufficiently warn the birds that they are approaching a deadly barrier.

But the solution only works 92 percent of the time, EWT says, which is why conservation stakeholders are always researching on more effective flappers, like installing ones that will illuminate ultraviolet or fluorescent light, which birds can see easily in poor light conditions.

Installing the flappers though, is a whole other issue.

“In South Africa, line markers are currently attached to powerlines by hand, via helicopter for larger transmissions lines, and a bucket truck for smaller distribution lines; which all present significant safety concerns.

“But drone technology now provides an alternative that negates the need to bring linemen into contact with power cables while potentially saving millions of Rands in helicopter time and other live line equipment usually required to perform the task.”

Having had a long working partnership with South Africa’s power utility Eskom, the EWT presented their new drone-based proposal to save the birds, and went as far as demonstrating how it would work.

“The EWT used 3D design and printing technology to develop a working prototype of a remote attachment system to be mounted on a drone to attach flappers to powerlines safely,” the organisation said on Monday. “This custom-built system can carry one magazine holding four flappers at a time. Multiple magazines can be printed for quick reloading in the field.

The magazine is suspended safely drone by an insulated rod, allowing the pilot to position the drone away from live energy components while the magazine makes contact with the line and dispenses the flappers.”

Trial runs of the project were successfully conducted in March in front of Eskom authorities in the Zeerust area in the country’s North West province, where several vultures have previously lost their lives by colliding on powerline cables in the area.

“What an incredible achievement for the Eskom/EWT strategic partnership to mark the first powerline in Africa with an RPAS system,” said an elated Constant Hoogstad, EWT’s Senior Manager: Industry Partnerships, who has been with the marking project since he proposed it to Eskom in 2016. “This has taken years of hard work and dedication from a very committed team to ensure that history was made. It is a huge win for bird species affected by powerlines.”

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2 Comments

  • Megan Murison Reply

    14 April 2021 at 15:19

    Hi there, Thank you for a lovely piece on our work. I would like to point out that the EWT supports the sustainable use of wildlife, which includes trophy hunting, provided it meets certain conditions. We would also like to clarify that there was no doubt when we started the process knowing we would be able to use the RPAS to attach flappers to the lines. A further correction is that the flappers are used to prevent collisions, not electrocutions which require different mitigation technology. Again we thank you for the article, if you would like to chat to us more please email ewt@ewt.org.za.

    • admin Reply

      15 April 2021 at 11:56

      Hi Megan. Thank you for the heads up, and for the good work you do. We have updated the story

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