South Africa’s unmanned aviation sector has only been legal since July but the value of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft) as the SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) calls them, has long been acknowledged by fields as diverse as film making and livestock control.
“With regulations in place to control this sector of the aviation industry it can start earning and contributing to the national economy,” said Ian Melamed, chief executive of Prowings, the first flying school in South Africa to be granted official approval to teach unmanned aircraft pilots. He is also a qualified instructor on fixed wing and multirotor UAVs and has built up hundreds of hours in flight time.
As an example of the value add UAVs can provide he recalls a contract that saw him and a team working counter-poaching in the Tembe Elephant Park on South Africa’s border with Mozambique.
“When our team arrived incursions by suspected poachers were reported as being at around the 20 mark a day. Loss of animals, including rhino, was three a day. When our aerial patrols were up and running the reported incursions dropped to three a day and poaching losses went down to zero,” he said.
He tells of an incident, not related to the contract, but that assisted in combatting crime in the area.
“Some of our guys ran out of cigarettes and drove to a kiosk just across the border to stock up. While there they were subjected to some verbal abuse by a Mozambican policeman. On coming back to the South African side they were informed the vehicle smugglers couldn’t operate as freely in the area due to the presence of unmanned aircraft and the policeman was not getting his regular ‘toll’ from them.
“This to me shows there is a serious deterrent value in having UAVs patrolling in high risk areas such as border environments and game reserves,” he said.
Melamed and his team have also worked in Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s flagship reserve Hluhluwe-iMfolozi as part of the overall counter- and anti-poaching strategy of the provincial conservation agency. A reduction of up to 70% in poaching incidents was noted during the time UAVs provided aerial surveillance.
With the door now legally open for UAVs , Melamed sees other work such as film making, monitoring of cable and power lines, regular scanning of coal and other mineral stockpiles, monitoring livestock and wildlife movement and assisting in anti-poaching and border control operations coming more and more the way of UAV operators.
“We are both proud and happy to be part of this sector of aviation in South Africa and will do our level best to ensure, as with other sectors of the industry, that safety will always be our top priority.”
The Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of SA (CUAASA) estimates there were at least 400 people and/or companies operating UAVs in South Africa prior to SACAA regulations being promulgated.
Research commissioned by the Association shows the local unmanned aviation sector can provide direct employments to just over two thousand people with a further 1 252 indirectly employed.
In addition to creating new jobs, unmanned aviation can also add just on half a billion Rand to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually and boost SA Revenue Services (SARS) income by an estimated R74 million a year, according to the study.
The SACAA implemented its new RPA regulations on 1 July, which requires commercial operators to obtain pilot and aircraft licenses and obtain letters of approval to operate. Since then it has registered 118 RPAs, issued 10 remote pilot licences and received 10 applications for RPA training organisations.