Advances in drone technology come under the spotlight


Advances in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, technology were once again under the spotlight at a Drone Conference held at Emperor’s Palace last week, which saw companies discussing advances in agricultural surveying, camera technology and drone deliveries, amongst others.

Matthew Whalley, CEO and Founder of Passerine Aircraft Corporation, looked at the many roles UAVs play, from cargo delivery to fire monitoring, pipeline and power line inspection, security, survey, wildlife protection and filming and photography.

He estimated that 31 800 UAVs would be needed a year to monitor the 14.2 million square kilometres of managed forests whilst 298 000 UAVs would be needed for agriculture. A further 150 000 UAVs would be needed a year for monitoring the 3.5 million kilometres of above ground pipelines and 297 000 UAVs would be needed to monitor all powerlines. Whalley sees potential demand for 1.6 million UAVs a year to deliver sub-15 kilogramme packages.

With such huge potential for UAVs, Whalley said the industry to manufacture UAVs has the potential to be massive and as South Africa has the skills to produce aircraft here, South Africa can help meet this demand. “Drones have the potential to revolutionise many industries. Africa is positioned to take advantage of this to catch up to and overtake the rest of the world. The window to do this is small and we need to be working to take advantage of this opportunity.”

Passerine Aircraft Corporation is developing a unique UAV that jumps into the air, eliminating the need for a runway, launch rail or any other takeoff assistance device. For takeoff, the UAV jumps into the air on specially designed robotic legs, and for landing, enters a stall and then lands on the legs, much like birds do. Whalley believes this is the first such UAV in the world.

Riaan Stopforth from the University of KwaZulu-Natal gave an overview of the many UAV research and development projects taking place there, which has seen several UAVs developed by the university, such as the twin-boom, twin engine NMU001 fixed wing aircraft.

Multiple tests have been done on autonomous package delivery, with two UAVs being used to drop packages whilst in flight (a small UAV tested .5 kg payloads and a 4 metre wingspan dropped 5 kg payloads). In one test, a UAV dropped a package within 1.8 metres from the target from a height of 75 metres. Stopforth said UKZN has been contemplating using UAVs to drop packages onto ships, and has been researching flying in tunnels (useful in the mining industry). Other possibilities being explored include pylon and wind turbine inspection, and developing a fixed wing vertical takeoff and landing UAV – some experimentation has already been done with a four metre fixed wing drone.

UKZN has been developing aircraft stability and autonomous landing software that has been tested in simulators and on a small drone. The software is designed to allow aircraft to recover from extreme manoeuvres, buffeting or other unsafe flight conditions. According to Stopforth, auto-flaring is very difficult to manage but the software is able to do so.

Stopforth said getting funding for UAV research and development was very difficult, especially as commercial work that creates income takes precedence over academic work. He called for the creation of a robotics centre in South Africa to get people from academia and industry to work together and share staff and resources. He also called on industry to join with academia and provide scholarships and training.

Zwelethu Hlathswayo, Senior Mine Surveyor at Exxaro Resources, gave a presentation on the use of UAVs for mine site rehabilitation. He said after manual surveying was found to be slow, difficult and dangerous, UAVs were tasked with the job and found to be the fastest and safest way of surveying stockpiles. They are being used at Exxaro’s coal strip mine in Belfast, Mpumalanga, which produces several million tons of coal a year, and help make it a ‘connected mine’.

Philip Smerkovitz, Managing Director of GoUAV, talked about advances in UAV navigation and camera technology. He said real-time kinematic (RTK) positioning is increasingly making its way into UAV navigation and surveying as it provides real-time corrections to location data, giving up to centimetre-level accuracy. For example, a DJI Phantom 4 UAV with RTK software can achieve a ground sample distance of 2.74 centimetres at a flight altitude of 100 metres.

Smerkovitz explained that UAV payloads are becoming increasingly sophisticated – for example the commercial DJI Matrice 210 can carry two payloads simultaneously, and is also equipped with an ADS-B transponder and anti-collision beacon for safer operation in controlled airspace. One of its payloads can include a radiometric thermal camera, which is far more sensitive than regular thermal cameras as it can pick up differences in temperatures of less than .5 degrees, giving twice the temperature measurement accuracy. The camera can measure the highest, lowest and average temperatures and highlight objects within a set temperature range, which is useful for search and rescue when looking for people.

Smerkovitz said UAVs have hugely disrupted the survey industry, which is one of the fastest growing applications for UAV technology. For instance, using a drone to survey a 35 metre cellphone tower takes just 4.5 minutes, being radically faster, and 80% cheaper than manually surveying the tower. Using specialist software, models, maps and comparative analysis points can be automatically generated.

Matthew Davis, Drone Operations Associate at South African company Aerobotics, gave a presentation on UAVs in agricultural survey. He said that pest and disease damage causes yield losses of 20-30% annually, but this can be reduced with proper surveying. Aerobotics’ solution is using drones to create a 3D model of every single tree in an orchard, allowing for their performance to be monitored over time.

He said Aerobotics is the only company to do crop survey on a per tree level and recently recorded 30 million trees in its database- 40% of South African macadamia farmers and 50% of citrus farmers use Aerobotics, he said. Although the company began in South Africa, it is expanding into the Americas and elsewhere around the world.

Aerobotics is working on a new tool to predict crop yield by identifying every fruit on a tree. At the moment it is still developing the software, which is a tedious process as trees have to be manually counted to correlate data with what the UAV sees. Another future project the company is working on is pest and disease detection. This is also a tedious process as hundreds of photos of diseased plants at different life stages need to be analysed for machine learning to work.

Davis said that there are many benefits to using UAVs in agriculture as they save time and resources, reduce losses and increase yields, ultimately giving the farmer a better return on investment. UAVs also promise to be effective crop sprayers as they can be programmed to only spray individual trees, saving pesticide.

Aerobotics offers several packages for farmers starting with a three year satellite data package that tracks crop changes, to a seasonal crop monitoring service starting at R50 per hectare. If a farmer flies his own UAV, using novel software provided by Aerobotics, the cost goes down to R30 per hectare.

On the regulatory side, Ricardo Pillay, Director at LNP Attorneys, took a look at the risks and implications of using UAVs and the regulatory framework. He noted that since the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) implemented UAV regulations in July 2015, all UAVs used for commercial purposes are subject to strict regulations: a Remotely Piloted Aerial System (RPAS) Operator Certificate (ROC) is required for commercial, corporate and non-profit operations and an Air Services License (ASL) is also required. However, there have been major delays from the SACAA, with only 20-odd companies receiving ROCs out of an application backlog of 340. Letters of approval to fly are also backed up, with 500 outstanding applications.

Pillay suggested that to ease cumbersome UAV regulations there should be a distinction between low and high risk operators. He said the regulators also need to allocate more resources to license applications and perhaps digitise processes. “As the skies become crowded a more comprehensive regulatory regime is required,” he said.