Smoke On Go

South Africa’s drone industry is taking flight

Once poised at the forefront of the African and global drone industry, South Africa’s position has since stagnated, coming to a veritable standstill with regards to stakeholder engagement and collaboration, as well as the modernisation and transformation of its regulatory landscape. However, this is set to change with a number of new and exciting initiatives.

According to Sean Reitz, President of the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of Southern Africa (CUAASA), 2020 began optimistically and was poised to be the ‘Year of the Drone’. However, Covid-19 changed this, and the year became a challenge of survival for many, not least the local drone industry.

“While there will most likely still be a tough road ahead for aviation in general, what gives me hope is the renewed enthusiasm and focus with the right players involved to drive our drone industry forward,” he says.

Essentially, this alludes to a number of new intiatives that aim to reinstate South Africa as a global drone leader.

A national drone strategy

First and foremost of these was the announcement and launch of the Drone Council South Africa in July last year. Chaired by Mr Irvin Phenyane, the formation of the Drone Council is a positive development from various project teams over the last two years, largely driven by CUAASA and engagements with the Economic Cluster in 2019.

As a non-profit organisation (NPO), the Drone Council is mandated to be an organising council for associations or chambers to join. It aims to ensure there is a National Drone Strategy in place with government, and to drive ‘Operation Catch Up 2023’, an initiative to ensure South Africa’s rightful position as the continent’s leading drone operator.

Expediting growth

“CUAASA is fully behind any initiative that focuses on driving growth and access for the drone industry within government,” notes CUAASA ExCo member and Director at Aerial Works, Kim James. “As a founding member of the Council, CUAASA leads the commercial industry sector Chamber representing Drone Operators. We believe that the time has come to work together and strategise with government to turn our industry around. Creating jobs, up-skilling our people within the 4IR environment, business incubation and industry massification will all help to expedite the growth of the sector.”

Licensing changes

Another proposal aimed at implementing an easy to navigate process regarding regulatory protocols, is the potential move away from the current commercial licensing route to a categorisation model.

Says James: “At the moment it is a very expensive, time-intensive and cumbersome process to register as a commercial drone operator in South Africa, in turn limiting the potential growth of the industry. At the same time, there is a disconnect with hobbyists who are able to purchase a drone very easily, with no form of compliance or control whatsoever. Our aim is to get all of these drones into the air – safely, securely and with respect to everyone’s right to privacy.”

As a result CUAASA is currently taking part in a number of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (Part 101) working groups, with some of the key topics feeding into the industry’s future building blocks.

“To begin with, we need to start considering practical factors such as the size and weight of the drone, as well as its usage – hobby vs. business – for example,” explains James. “We are considering the possibility of all drones within a certain weight category in South Africa to be required to be registered – whether for hobby or commercial use. We are also looking at ways to integrate drones into our airspace using UTM (Unmanned Aerial Systems Traffic Management), thereby enabling the large-scale adoption of drones into our airspace.”

The issue of enforcement

“The issue of enforcement is another important consideration, with irresponsible drone use threatening the entire drone industry for both licensed operators as well as future drone users. Related to this and UTM is the need for remote identification, whereby each drone – notwithstanding private, corporate or commercial, can easily be identified by any law enforcement agency.”

According to Reitz, the local drone industry continues to grow despite its challenges, with a noticeable shift of manned professionals moving to unmanned. Positive engagements between CUAASA, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), government and the newly formed Drone Council have all played a major role in this.

“Our aim is to promote collaboration between all drone parties to enable the large-scale adoption of drones and ultimately the acceleration of the industry,” concludes Reitz.