South Africa’s progressive approach to implementation of regulations for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has seen a Johannesburg company start production on an all-southern African designed and built UAV – the Eagle Owl.
“It is the first UAV in the country in its class to be manufactured from scratch,” said Adam Rosman, founder and managing director of Aerial Monitoring Solutions (AMS).
“There are currently no comparable products of this size and capability being built and sold in South Africa. Our major UAV competitors are based in the US, Europe and Israel and their products cost approximately 10 times more than our selling price of around R100 000. This price includes system familiarisation for operators, full technical back-up and a 12 month maintenance programme, covering small and major services based on the flying time of the UAV, as is done with all sizes of manned aeroplanes,” he said.
Rosman maintains a major benefit of UAVs is they are well suited for use in dangerous, dull and dirty (DDD) conditions and can be used for surveillance and search and rescue work far more cost effectively than helicopters or fixed wing aircraft where pilots can find themselves in dangerous situations.
“Our objective with the Eagle Owl was to produce an affordable UAV suited to South African conditions – robust enough to fly in most weather conditions at various altitudes as well as being able to cope with the heat and dust that is so much part of Africa and a certain amount of rough handling.”
The eight strong AMS team are all experienced engineers with degrees in aeronautical and electrical engineering as well as trained aircraft mechanics with extensive knowledge of the full-size aircraft industry, a qualified remote control pilot and consultant with the PhD in robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) with experience in algorithm and software development.
The Eagle Owl is made of fibreglass and carbon fibre. It has a wingspan of 2.5m, is 1.1m long and has a mass of 12kg. It is powered by a petrol engine allowing a flying time of up to six hours with a refuelling turnaround time of 10 minutes maximum.
It does not need a runway for take-off and landing and is propelled off an aluminium launcher and returns to ground by parachute, set to deploy at the launch site or at a preset landing location. The launch rail has been designed to fold up to fit in the back of a light delivery vehicle. The aircraft is fully modular for ease of transportation and consists of three pieces which easily click together. If one of the parts is damaged it can be ordered from AMS and replaced without having to replace the entire UAV.
The aircraft has an operational radius of 10km but this can be extended up to 100km with live data and high definition (HD) video being streamed in real-time. It can be flown manually or pre-programmed to fly on auto-pilot and its flight path is charted and controlled on a ground controlled base station (GCS).
The Eagle Owl can fly to a height of 19 000 feet but is restricted by SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) regulations to fly no higher than 400 feet. It cruises at 100km/h with a top speed of 120km/h.
Rosman said it is currently being sold as a basic package which can be fully customised by the client with a wide variation of additional features such as thermal, night vision and infra-red cameras which can also be retro-fitted.
Aerial Monitoring Solutions is also designing a smaller version of the Eagle Owl, which will have a wingspan of less than 1m, as well as a multicopter. Both of these will be available for purchase this year.
Rosman and some of his team have hands-on experience in the anti-poaching field, having been involved with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the provincial conservation agency which oversees fauna and flora protection in KwaZulu-Natal.