Drone Con 2019: redefining the future of work with drones


The theme of this year’s Drone Conference, held in Durban this week, was ‘redefining the future of work with drones’ and saw advances in drone technology and repercussions examined by stakeholders and companies from across the country.

The first day’s programme, on 15 October at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre (ICC) in Durban, began with a main presentation and panel discussion around regulatory and policy framework. The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) has tight and strict regulations that it enforces in its Part 101 regulations covering remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The presentation by Lobang Thabantso, manager of airworthiness engineering and co-chairperson of the RPAS interdepartmental technical work group at the SACAA, along with a panel, noted how the RPAS industry in South Africa is certainly growing and will continue to do so. It also looked at the challenges facing the industry, such as regulations, financing, privacy, data protection and illegal operations.

The next item was a panel discussion under the topic, “a view from the security cluster” which was moderated by CEO of UAV Industries and exco member of the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of Southern Africa (CUAASA), Ken Venn. The panel featured members of the SA Air Force (SAAF) who present on what the SAAF is currently capable of in terms of detection and prevention of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) threats. While the SAAF and South African Police Service (SAPS) work together in this regard and do have jammers and means of detection, the panel noted that there is a lack of technology available to the SAAF and SAPS, especially in means of detection.

Yolisa Kani, the head of public policy at Uber Technologies South Africa gave a presentation on Uber Elevate, a project centred around Uber launching a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAV that will pick passengers up and drop them off.

The following presentation was on, “the new drone start-up acceleration programme” by CTO of Mzani Aerospace Technologies, Victor Radebe and featured a panel discussion around sub-topics in starting a company in the drone industry, such as the time it takes for SACAA to issue remote operating certificates (ROCs), finance for working capital, the cost of drone equipment and access to the market. Radebe’s programme presented solutions to these obstacles for Small, Medium and Micro-sized Enterprises (SMMEs) and emerging drone service providers.

Nomusa Dube-Ncube, KZN MEC for economic development tourism and environmental affairs, believes it is an imperative to prepare youth for the future of work in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). Similar thoughts are shared by the minister of telecommunications and postal services, Stella Ndabeni Abrahams, who stated, “jobs will be lost, I don’t want to lie about that.” However Abrahams is positive that the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) will present many new jobs that will require niche training and that in her words, the government wants to support the development of these jobs and opportunities, as well as the training for them, however possible.

The conference not only accommodated for young companies in the industry but also people emerging in the drone industry, young and old, as their next presentation was on the necessary skills that are needed. According to Dr Simphiwe Buthelezi, head of research at the Moses Kotane Institute, and Enhle Kheswa, a researcher at ICT research and repository at Moses Kotane Institute, the current skills needed in the drone industry lie in research and development (R&D), materials and parts development, assembly and customization, programming, electronics and piloting, all of which are sector specific in the drone industry (mining, agriculture, construction, real estate, security, etc.).

The final presentation of day one was around the emerging uses for drone technology as well as what potential lies in Africa. Panellists working and researching in private security, rail and powerline inspection, surveying and mapping all revealed how drone technology is allowing for safer, faster and more accurate data. Aviation compliance advisor at AVI Comply, Sonet Kock, gave the main presentation on how to implement an ideal enterprise drone programme. Kock revealed that there are still a large number of hurdles mainly in regulations. Remote Operator Certificates (ROCs) required for commercial operations cost up to R400 000 and can take up to three years to obtain and Remote Piloting Licenses (RPLs) cost up to R25 000 and can take up to 6 months to obtain.

Drones on display at Drone Con featured The Little Ripper, a drone by the UDH Group, which has a system capable of detecting and identifying sharks and whales along coastlines. Due to the risky nature of operating a drone over busy beaches, the drone is fitted with a lot of redundancy such as extra rotors and GPS. The drone is extremely new and is still acquiring the relevant licensing but shows great promise in its capabilities. UDH group also featured a VTOL drone for use in the security industry. This drone is also new and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research has shown interest in the drone.

Day two of Drone Con began with a discussion of UAVs in agriculture. Louise Jupp, author of “Precision Farming from Above”, gave a presentation on driving efficiencies and competitiveness in Agriculture technology. Due to the rising number of people needed to be fed, that agriculture development is not currently on par with, Jupp suggests that drones providing the capture of data are a key tool in agriculture technology. This is due to the information that drones and their systems can provide to farmers in allowing more control over their largely unpredictable environment. Jupp’s research data gave a case study in a farm in Poland that is reducing their nitrogen use by 15% through drone crop spraying and data gathering. Similarly, a sugarcane farm in Argentina was able to reduce their logistical cost by 30% by using drones for crop spraying and data gathering. Other panellists around the discussion added that time and labour spent in crop spraying is greatly reduced through drone crop spraying.

The following panel discussion was centred around case studies from local and global cities that implemented drone programmes. Mervyn George, business architect at SAP, a multinational software corporation that makes enterprise software, stated that in the context of smart cities, drones are one point of capture for data. Street lights, building faces, CCTV cameras, etc, for SAP and George, should all be other points of capture for data and metrics in a smart city. He went on to state that data pipelines should be created, where all these points of capture are connected. He proposes a new use for drones with software such as AI, machine learning algorithms and augmented reality with the potential to access real time data for enterprises and businesses for the purpose of identifying, classifying and responding to incidents.

A discussion between the CEO of SUAV News, Gary Mortimer and president of CUAASA, Sean Reitz, revealed how an ecosystem needs to be created for drone use. As an example, with the Little Ripper, real time data and communication needs to happen to identify sharks and this is done through Amazon Web Services using LTE. However, Gary believes that companies and stakeholders in this process, “are not there yet”.

Drone Con 2019 concluded with stakeholders and companies in the drone industry, municipal departments, the SA cities network, SACAA and others workshopping a blueprint for the development of standards for the adoption of drone technology in municipalities.