The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the military is acknowledged worldwide but the South African National Defence Force appears slow to take this technology aboard, probably as a result of financial constraints rather than doubt about the equipment’s abilities and capabilities.
The draft defence industry strategy, compiled on behalf of the National Defence Industry council (NDIC), points out there are currently two South African defence companies producing military UAVs.
“The products of Denel Dynamics and Paramount Advanced Technologies (PAT) do not markedly overlap and there are also several smaller entities not focused on the defence application of UAVs. Additionally, the CSIR [Council for Scientific and Industrial Research] has its own activity in this field, but in the nature of research and development rather than product development,” the document states.
It goes on to point out an argument can be made for consolidation in the UAV field adding “perhaps the optimal route to follow would be to designate Denel Dynamics as the supplier to the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) of large UAVs with strategic importance, as well as the overall integrator of UAV systems for the SANDF”.
“This,” the authors of the strategy say, “would enable the SANDF to acquire a range of specialised UAVs for specific roles secure in the knowledge they can be integrated with others systems, without forcing local companies to attempt to meet all UAV requirements in the face of competition by the ever-growing number of companies in this field internationally.
“PAT and the smaller companies involved in the UAV field could remain active as long as they find markets for their products, which could include the SANDF”.
Denel Dynamics has not confirmed the delivery of an order for what is believed to be six of its Seeker 400 UAVs to the SANDF’s Defence Intelligence division.
The now-stood down 10 Squadron of the SA Air Force operated UAVs manufactured by Kentron, the forerunner of Denel Dynamics, during the bush war. Israeli UAVs were also used by South African forces during this time.
A Seeker 200 with full operational support was deployed to the Kruger National Park to assist with ongoing counter- poaching operations some years ago. Neither Denel Dynamics nor SANParks has officially released any information about performance, endurance and results but defenceWeb learnt unofficially the Seekers “worked as advertised” and were a valuable tool especially during the hours of darkness with their infrared capability.
A trial by Kruger using another UAV last year ended with the national conservation authority saying it would not be making use of UAVs in its counter-poaching operations.
The emerging commercial UAV industry in South Africa is also not doing as well as those involved expected and this has been put down to an overly rigid approach in terms of the regulations the SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) has produced.
Economist Dr Roelof Botha was commissioned by the local UAV industry to assess its economic impact and said regulators are holding back growth. With a more subtle approach by the SACAA the industry “could at least double in size every year over the next ten years or even undergo exponential growth, albeit off a low base.”
Many wanting to enter this sector of the aviation industry are reportedly frustrated by the SACAA red tape. Under current regulations a Remote Pilot Operators Certificate, costing around a minimum of R125 000 and taking up to two years to obtain, is required by companies and individuals offering a commercial UAV service. According to the industry, South Africa is the only country in the world requiring UAV operators to obtain an Air Services License to run a UAV business. In other countries this license type is only required for manned commercial operations.
South Africa has a long history with UAVs, notably the 1980s-era Denel Seeker, which subsequently evolved into the successful Seeker II and Seeker 200, and now the larger Seeker 400 and smaller civilian Hungwe. Denel Dynamics also builds the Skua target drone while Denel Vehicle Systems manufactures the LOCATS (low cost aerial target system) for the South African Army.
Surveillance specialist Desert Wolf made international headlines in 2014 when it unveiled the Skunk riot control UAV featuring loudspeakers, strobe lights and cameras, as well as four paintball guns (subsequently replaced by less lethal grenades). Desert Wolf also offers fixed and rotary wing surveillance UAVs like the Hawk and Bateleur.
Other local UAV manufacturers include UAV & Drone Solutions (UDS), established in 2012, which has done a lot of wildlife monitoring and anti-poaching work, Cape Town-based S-Plane, which specialises in UAV flight control units and avionics and UAVs and FlyH2 Aerospace. The latter is developing a hydrogen fuel cell powered UAV.