SA UAV industry worth R400 million


The South African unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry is worth an estimated R400 million and is chasing annual business worth the same amount, says Simphiwe Hamilton, chairman of the UAS Forum and executive director of the SA Aerospace, Maritime and Defence Industries Association.

The UAS Forum brings together SA UAS producers Denel Dynamics and ATE as wel as research and development centres based at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research as well as experts from the departments of Science and Technology as well as Trade and Industry.

“It was estimated in 2005 that 200 full-time people employed in the wider South African industry would create a sustainable business turnover of around R200 million per year,” Hamilton says.

“This is considered a reasonable starting point, however the industry has grown so rapidly that this figure is estimated to have doubled to R400m in 2009.”

Denel Dynamics meanwhile estimates world-wide UAV market at R50 billion a year. It believes SA “has what it takes` to be a player in what has become the fastest growing sector of the international aerospace industry.

While the US and Israel dominate the global market, the company says there is scope for SA to use local skills to create market-leading UAVs to developing nations, a market is assesses at R2 billion a year.

The SA UAV industry aims to capture “in excess of 20% of this end of the market at an estimated value of R400 million a year”, says Denel Dynamics executive director for UAS Tsepo Monaheng.  

“Our country is in a unique historical, geo-political and technological position to tap into the associated lucrative civilian and military markets,” adds Monaheng.

“We are ideally positioned to collaborate with certain developing countries, offering first world expertise in UAS and missile capabilities.”

He continues that the local industry is taking the race to sustain its position seriously and experienced UAS companies Denel Dynamics and ATE “are not competing against one another for a slice of the pie.”

Indeed, they are partners in the UAS Forum.

But Hamilton and Monaheng caution that big-budget international competitors are entering the market and that the technological and operational capabilities of UAS are growing rapidly.

Thus although SA is strengthening its local industry to remain competitive, it is working against “Goliath investors … who are catching up fast.” 

Implicitly, more investment is urgently required.

Monaheng notes the global increase in the operational use of UAS is a direct result of lessons learnt in Iraq and Afghanistan

“The surveillance benefits in the defence world of being able to survey borders and enter war zones without a pilot are extensive.”

Even regular use of UAVs in civilian airspace has captured the world`s imagination. 

“The availability of capable and affordable SA UAS of various sizes will trigger the enhancement of not only national security, but crime fighting, disaster management, election monitoring and search and rescue. 

UAS even provide benefits to the agricultural, mining, health and environmental sectors. Within the next five years UAS will be used by a diversity of industries from policing poachers on coastlines, carrying test specimens from remote clinics to laboratories for analysis, to keeping an eye on livestock on farms, and will prove to be a lucrative parallel market for international UAS players. 

However, the civil UAS market is largely untapped because of regulatory constraints. 

UAS are not generally allowed to access civilian airspace because current regulations were originally drafted for manned flight. This is changing, with regulatory bodies across the globe, including SA`s Civil Aviation Authority driving the process of drafting internationally compliant, UAS friendly regulations. 

International competition is fierce to master what is termed “sense and avoid”` technology aimed at enhancing the safe use of UAS in controlled airspace.

Once this capability has been perfected, the opportunities will lead to an explosion in UAS demand, Monaheng avers.

Pic: The Denel Dynamics Seeker 400 MALE UAV. The company earlier this year predicted a sale of a launch system of this latest-generation SA UAS by year-end.