RPAS ROC for SANBS – a South African first

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A three year-long initiative by the SA National Blood Service (SANBS) came full swing with the issuing of a remote operator’s certificate (ROC) by the SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) – believed to be the first so-called delivery drone license in the country.

Apt comment on the ROC came from digital publication Drones.R.Africa which noted every ROC issued by SACAA for RPAS (remotely piloted aircraft systems) is cause for celebration, signifying “a massive win” for the local drone industry.

“This is different. It is for emergency medical services delivery. It is saving lives,” the publication’s producer Jerry Davison wrote with pride.

SANBS first steps on the road to unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flight certification started in 2019 when it set out on Project BloodWing. The intention was to deliver blood to remote parts of Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

“Congratulations to SANBS for obtaining the drone license (ROC) from the SACAA to deliver blood and essential medical samples using drones,” said drone services company Ntsu Aviation, which assisted the service with the certification process.

“SANBS launched the Project BloodWing in May 2019 with the intention to deliver blood in remote areas of KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape. In August 2021, SANBS appointed Ntsu Aviation Solutions to advise and assist with SACAA compliance process and accreditation.

“Well-done Ntsu and the SANBS drone team. This is the first approval to be issued by SACAA for drone delivery in South Africa.”

The blood transfusion service selected German drone maker and solutions provider Quantum Systems, with it suggesting the Tron F9 drone, with a flight range of 100 km and a speed up to 180 km/hour. It can carry four units of blood weighing 2 kg and can carry other payloads such as blood samples on return flights. This, in turn, can help SANBS in finding blood matches.

The SANBS and Quantum Systems teams worked hard to make a drone properly suited for speedy specialised medical delivery.

Then SANBS chief executive Dr Jonathan Louw was heavily invested in the project from the start.

“We had a discussion with the Department of Health on how to help people in rural areas and the drone project was born,” he said at the launch of Project BloodWing in 2019.

“We believe this will be a milestone in the history of blood transfusion, not only in South Africa, but in the world.”

And a milestone it was, reports the specialist UAV publication. Even by 2019 standards, South Africa was three or four years too late to the medical drone party it was ironically leading in 2015, when Emeritus Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand Barry Mendelow presented a lecture in Johannesburg about research he had been doing for the greater part of a decade in partnership with stakeholders including Denel.

This work resulted in development of the e-Juba, a preliminary proof of concept UAV to facilitate transport of microbiological test samples for tuberculosis patients from 5 000 remote rural clinics to 603 National Health Laboratory Service laboratories (NHLS) around the country.

Since then, drone logistics companies including Zipline, Wingcopter and Swoop Aero launched sustained medical logistics operations in DR Congo, Rwanda, Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi and Mozambique; transporting medical supplies and blood to destinations previously impossible to reach by air.

Now, it seems South Africa is finally on true lift-off in medical drone logistics, with a locally made drone prototype.

The only African country to have done so far that is Madagascar, where AerialMetric delivered medicines using a locally made drone since 2016.

The BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) licence makes the SANBS the first in South Africa to be granted this licence, which prompted Ntsu Aviation to describe it as the most complex drone operation to be approved by the SACAA since drone regulations were promulgated in 2015.

As a drone based healthcare provision service, SANBS can now use drones to connect remote healthcare facilities for better service delivery; deliver much-needed medical supplies to remote or rural healthcare facilities faster and more efficiently; as well as accelerate delivery of medicine, vaccine and, another example, snake bite anti-toxins.

SA issues first delivery drone ROC – DRONES.R.AFRICA (dronenews.africa