Local drone operator Rocketmine has become the second drone operator in SA to obtain a Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) licence from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) for the flight of its commercial drones.
Founded in 2012, Rocketmine, a subsidiary of the listed Delta Drone, provides customised drone data solutions to improve operational efficiencies and systems. The company focuses mainly on the niche mining sector, but solutions are applicable to a number of other industries as well, including agriculture and solar farms. Services include survey and mapping, blast monitoring, industrial inspection, as well as security and surveillance.
“The current SACAA laws for drone operators for Visual Line of Site operations limit flights to a radius of 500m from the drone operator and a maximum upward distance of 120m with an observer overseeing the flight. A BVLOS approval, on the other hand, allows for a flight radius beyond 1km without an observer,” says the company.
United Drone Holdings is the only other local company to hold the BVLOS licence.
Christopher Clark, MD of Rocketmine, explains: “The BVLOS approval will enable Rocketmine to offer its clients more applications for their drone services at their sites more cost-effectively. We are now able to offer clients access to areas that were previously ‘out of reach’ due to height or visibility constraints. In addition, we are now able to expand our service offerings into other exciting and emerging sectors.
“BVLOS operations also come with an increased safety risk, as there is no visual sight of the actual drone. In response to this, Rocketmine has had to improve its operational processes to accommodate for the approval to mitigate against factors that would be safety concern.”
Discussing the criteria of qualifying for the BVLOS drone flight approval, Nomthi Mnisi, marketing, communication and training manager at Rocketmine, explains SACAA has a lengthy procedure which has to be completed.
“SACAA has a very stringent and rigorous process in place for operators to prove they are able to meet the requirements for BVLOS operations. The biggest concern with BVLOS is safety of the public, as well as that of manned airspace traffic. Of the 25 legal operators in SA, only two have received approval to fly BVLOS. The operator is required to provide detailed evidence of their safety procedures and documents and demonstrate that they are able to operate their drones in these risky conditions.”
In terms of the challenges facing the local drone industry, Mnisi points out these include a limited number of local players offering similar services.
“The major challenges facing the drone industry are two-fold and are linked. The first challenge is the rapid rate at which the technology is evolving and growing. There is also a consolidation in the number of players within the industry. An example of this is the Chinese manufacturer DJI, which is developing innovative multi-rotor solutions, leaving other manufacturers to focus on niches such as fixed-wing and vertical take-off and landing aircraft equipment.
“This limits the choice for the drone market in terms of hardware and technology which can be used, causing a standardisation in the market. This is not a negative, but it does mean that companies are challenged to differentiate themselves in other ways,” she adds.
Furthermore, the price of drones is not decreasing, with entry-level consumer drones still around the R15 000 mark and the professional drones ranging from around R40 000 to R120 000, continues Mnisi.
“This leads to a capital challenge: how much capital you have available will influence how quickly you can grow and scale your business.”
Comprehensive drone regulations came into effect in SA in June 2015, opening up a world of infinite possibilities for companies in both the private and public sector wishing to offer drone services.
The new regulations, which apply to both hobbyists and commercial users, were set up in response to the growing demand to regulate the sector in order for SAA to take full advantage of the emerging technology.
“The regulations were designed to eliminate unknown risks by putting limitations in place. This doesn’t necessarily mean any operations outside of the limitations are too risky or will not be allowed,” said Phindiwe Gwebu, CAA spokesperson, at the time.
According to a report by research firm, IDC, global drone spending will reach $9 billion in 2018, and is expected to grow at a faster rate than the overall market, with a five-year compound annual growth rate of 29.8%.
“Enterprise drone solutions will deliver more than half of all drone spending throughout the forecast period, with the balance coming from consumer drone solutions. The utilities and construction industries will see the largest drone spending in 2018 ($912 million and $824 million, respectively), followed by the process and discrete manufacturing industries,” reveals the report.