The who’s who of the local drone industry are meeting this week at Vodaworld in Midrand, north of Johannesburg, at the second ever DroneCon.
The brainchild of Sean Reitz, the chief executive officer of United Drone Holdings, the aim of the three-day convention is to get the various players in the industry talking to each other; from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) to the industry’s Commercial Unmanned Aviation Association of South Africa (CUAASA).
There is much to talk about, starting with the fact that there are still only 25 licenced commercial operators in the country, who possess ROCs (Remote Operating Certificates) and that takes two years and about R500 000 to get one. The drones have to be airworthy, just like any other aircraft, and registered with the SACAA and their pilots qualified with RPLs (Remote Pilot Licences).
The licensed commercial sector probably makes up just 1% of the entire drone or UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) sector – the problem lies with the rest, from the operators who fly unregistered and under the radar to the ‘buy and fly’ hobbyists.
As Ken Venn, UAV entrepreneur and CUAASA board member explained in the very first session on Wednesday 16 May, the bureaucracy and the cost are barriers to entry that are being treated like the e-tolls of the air. The net effect is that small entrepreneurs are being cut out and the potential for job creation stifled – Reitz estimates this could reach 26 000 people, most of whom would be young and black.
“You don’t have to have gone to an A-league school, you only need eye/hand coordination, a basic aptitude to learn, that’s all. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. It’s a great opportunity to transform the industry. Many drone pilots are using the money they earn to become manned pilots.”
Reitz reckons there could be anything up to 50 000 drones in use in South Africa, from the buy and fly hobbyists to the unregulated and unlicenced commercial operators. All of them are potential threats.
As Eitan Stern, the founder of specialist tech start-up law firm Legalese, explains, no one can take to the air without regulations. Manned aviation’s prevalence of fatalities is so low as to be effectively negligible given the scale of the industry.
“Johannesburg to Cape Town is the 12th busiest aviation route in the world – and has had zero fatalities.”
It is because, he says, of the trial and error that’s been in place since 1903 when Wilbur and Orville Wright first successfully took to the air, making flying progressively safer.
“The drone industry began in 2013 and by 2018 you could walk into CNA and buy a drone for under R1 000, all you need is a generous parent and a Mastercard. For the first time in the history of aviation you could fly with zero rules and zero training.”
The drones had democratised the airspace but made it much more dangerous in the process.
“We need regulations because aircraft taking off and landing fly at 5 000 feet which is within the range of drones. The problem is not the people who are in this room, it’s the 64 000 who aren’t.”
Stern’s fear is that one day there will be a crash, not in the veld, but over a built-up area. “When it happens, we’ll have lost the biggest support we have, the public’s goodwill towards drones.”
SACAA took a lot of flak from the audience. Some asked if the authority has enough legal power to investigate infractions.
SACAA executive Simon Segwaba explained, as Stern had done, that aviation law sits within the body of South African common law, statute and precedent.
“Complaints may be lodged with the CAA but ultimately, if it’s a crime it gets handed over to the SAPS – especially with issues of privacy. There’s not much difference between a man holding a camera on a stick over your wall and a drone flying over your home filming it.”
Later he had to defend himself against accusations that the SACAA is being tardy with its investigations.
“It takes a second to commit a transgression, but a lot longer to get to final sanction,” Segwaba explained. “Many cases have been reported and they’re all being thoroughly investigated, but everything takes time, process has to be followed, evidence gathered and tested.”
Venn echoed the concerns that the technological advances are rendering the regulations obsolete by the time they are eventually drafted.
For Reitz, the debates are proof of just why DroneCon is so essential. The fact that CASAA and CUAASA are able to sit around the same table, cordially, and discuss issues is a step in the right direction, he said.
Drones are his second business, after he sold his medical supply company and moved from Joburg to the Cape several years ago. He’s a trained helicopter pilot but has never flown a drone, but that hasn’t stopped him investing heavily in the drone industry. UDH is an umbrella for multiple operations, including a fleet of 31 drones – for which Reitz only just received his ROC to operate, pilot training and even drone sales.
“I’m fascinated by disruptive technology. I was alive when TV was switched on for the first time, saw the introduction of cell phones. Drones can do great things for this country, there are huge job opportunities. I see an industry that touches so many points, it’s very diverse.”
DroneCon is his bid to get the players into the same room, to evangelise, to share knowledge, to collaborate on projects, to network and to galvanise the country about the exponential potential of this industry which is rapidly disrupting the world in so many different ways.
DroneCon 2018 runs at Vodaworld until Friday 18 May.