Can the commercial UAV industry thrive amid coronavirus?


On the eve of South Africa moving from a level five national lockdown to level four, Drone Con held its first webinar under the theme “Thriving in the new normal”. The purpose was to bring South African commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, industry leaders together to discuss how COVID-19 has affected drone-related businesses and gain an aerial view on what the future might hold for the technology that is revolutionising how some industries operate.

The webinar was directed by Victor Radebe (Mzansi Drone Accelerator) and the panel was comprised of Sean Reitz (CEO of UDH Group), Kim James (Director of UAV Aerial Works & Drone Guards), Jack Shilubana (CEO of Ntiyisa Consulting), Manabela Chauke (CEO of Psira), Bheka Masinga (CEO of BM Global) and Hloni Coleman (Step Above).

Reitz opened the webinar on 30 April with an outlook of the UAV industry in South Africa. Before 2019, Reitz noted that SA’s drone industry did not experience much growth, mainly due to restrictive regulations. “My sense was that in 2019, we had real movement in the industry with a number of ROCs (Remote Operator Certificates) being issued and about 40-odd that were sort of in final phase,” said Reitz.

The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) approved 26 operators in 2018 and 63 as of 2020.  Corporate ROCs (companies with ROCs) have grown from one in 2018 to five in 2020. Reitz added that compliance with strict SACAA regulation is still relatively challenging. Drone-related businesses, much like every other business with the 26 March lockdown in SA, had to cease operations unless deemed essential by government authorities.

The effects of coronavirus on the drone industry are being seen worldwide, according to Frost & Sullivan, who are expecting only 0.6% in revenue growth for drone makers in the United States. Despite an overcast outlook for revenue growth for drone makers in the US and globally, Reitz believes that in 2020, South Africa’s drone use in the public sector and private security industry will increase significantly. In addition, Reitz believes drone piloting will be seen as a real career opportunity and investment into online learning for obtaining a remote pilot license (RPL).

Drones in the fight against coronavirus in South Africa have not seen much action, however. Shilubana told Drone Con how Ntiyisa Aviation Services (NAS), a subsidiary of Ntiyisa Consulting, assisted law enforcement in the Greater Tzaneen Municipality. NAS did surveillance and monitoring of citizens’ compliance with lockdown regulations in Tzaneen as well as broadcasted messages on social distancing in the rural communities and informal settlements. Shilubana stated the project was successful and going forward, NAS seeks to provide a joint operation service to the South African Police Service (SAPS) to identify priority sites and hotspots (potential non-compliant areas) and deploy drone teams in the areas to monitor permanently or move from site to site collecting information for law enforcement.

Drone Con was told by Masinga that BM Global is currently contracted by the SA National Defence Force in collaboration with Armscor to develop, “the country’s first radar and electronic warfare mission planning software which will then go into an indigenous South African mission computer with the aim around that to protect sovereignty”.

The rest of the webinar featured Rabede asking the opinions of the panellists on hot topics in the drone industry such as privacy and regulations. Reitz mentioned that the SACAA regulations around flying over people are still tight.

Shilubanas spoke about Tzaneen citizens’ fascination with drones monitoring them and speaking to them in their own language and Chauke and James drew on parallels between how willingly people give up their personal information on social media platforms and are watched by CCTV but are not on board with drones monitoring the public space.

“I think from a drone perspective, we watch too many movies… The point is if you’re flying from 30 metres and you’re on a mission to do a perimeter patrol, etc. we are not wanting to see what’s going on in someone’s swimming pool or looking through someone’s window,” said James. “I think the desensitising [to drones] is still in its infancy stage and people will get over it”.

Adding to James’ point, Coleman spoke about the need for the commercial drone industry to change public perception of the drone. “To anyone in the industry, to any other ROC holders, the game we’re playing is not competing against each other; the game we’re playing is getting drones and drone sentiment positively adopted in South Africa.”