The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is in South Africa from today to finalise global regulations for the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in civil airspace.
The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) and the Department of Transport (DoT) is hosting a four-day meeting from today that will provide ICAO signatory states a framework to regulate the use of UAS.
“The finalisation of this document will be a considerable milestone that is sure to open the skies for UAS,” SACAA say in a statement.
“This meeting will be attended by UAS experts from across the world and will also feature a key note address and presentation by high ranking officials from both the DoT and the SACAA.
“UAS or pilot-less aircraft have a longstanding history dating back to 1944. However, the evolution of this type of aircraft has been slow, particularly in the civil aviation sector as compared to the military domain,” SACAA says.
“Nonetheless, in recent years considerable progress has taken place not only concerning military but also civil applications. Despite the lack of regulations governing civil application, experts believe that there is a huge potential market and use of UAS especially for scientific, research, medical, expeditionary, humanitarian disaster … security surveillance missions as well as agricultural and commercial aerial work.
UAS a growth area
Business Day newspaper yesterday reported that Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor sees UAS as a growth area for SA. Speaking to the paper Friday she said SA “seriously needs to up its level of investment in research and development (R&D)” to remain competitive. She also voiced an intention to encourage innovation through greater collaboration between the government and the private sector.
Figures published in December showed that SA spent R18.6 billion on R&D in 2007-08: equivalent to just 0.93% of gross domestic product (GDP). That figure was a slight fall from the 2006-07 total of 0.95%, representing the first decline in six years in a measure widely accepted as an indicator of economic competitiveness.
This was despite the 2006 introduction of a 150% tax credit on companies’ research activities — a scheme that too few are aware of, according to Pandor. “We’ve been aiming to reach 1% of GDP, and I’m hoping our next report, at the end of this year, will show we’ve at least got to that. But we’ve got to go well beyond it. Countries that are performing best are at over 3%; countries of comparable economic size to our own are at around 2,3%, so we’ve got to up the ante.
“I’ll be engaging with the Treasury to ensure that we increase the resources (dedicated to R&D), and I hope government will agree that this is an important area in which SA must improve its performance,” she said.
Pandor spoke to Business Day during a visit to technology companies organised by the Da Vinci Technology Top 100 awards programme. One of the companies visited was Midrand UAS maker Advanced Technologies and Engineering SA (ATE).
CEillie van Biljon told Pandor that while 85% of ATE’s revenue came from overseas clients, it had given up trying to compete directly with international giants like BAE Systems. “We provide our clients with unique solutions — and that’s where we can count as South Africans. We can’t compete with the big guys on the standard response, but we can provide customers with products that are new and cost-effective.”
While the defence industry was SA’s “most innovative sector”, Van Biljon pointed to the potential civilian uses of technology developed for the military. Van Biljon said a new class of UAV developed by ATE could be used by clinics in remote areas to transport medical samples for urgent laboratory analysis.
UAS a cheap solution
Jan Vermeulen, head of ATE’s UAV division, said the unit cost of the vehicles — launched by hand and controlled using an ordinary laptop computer — could be as low as 50 000 euro (R529 000),” Business Day reported.
“We’ve been approached by the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) to conduct demonstrations of this technology, which will begin in April.” The vehicles could come into use by the NHLS before the end of the year, subject to SACAA approval, and could be used by up to 1000 clinics nationwide, says Vermeulen.
“A major problem for the NHLS is that they can’t reliably transport medical samples from rural areas to laboratories within the time frame needed for a fast turnaround of results. With these UAVs, the samples will arrive within half an hour.” Vermeulen saw further potential for UAV use in policing national borders, tracking wild fires, and monitoring poaching in game reserves.
Pandor welcomed the convergence between military technology and civilian needs, but said the onus was on the government to “seek out” such a link. “There is an under-appreciation (in government) of the potential that technology holds … why is it so difficult to produce an ID?
“We as government need to begin to ask ourselves, when we identify a problem: how can technology help? So much of the time I look at people devising paper solutions to problems when they could use technology.”
Pic: The ATE Roadrunner UAV seen at AAD2008, Cape Town, September 2008.