Regulations lag behind capability of drones

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THE commercial potential for unmanned aerial vehicles — commonly known as drones — is vast, but the penalty for flying them in SA’s civil airspace is a R50,000 fine or a jail sentence.

While rules are being drafted for their local use, South African-designed and manufactured drones are being exported for military and commercial applications.

“The industry is growing, not only in Africa but worldwide — it is the latest development in aerospace,” says Denel executive manager for unmanned aerial vehicles Sello Ntsihlele.

“The major users are the military but there is an increase in need for commercial applications, such as for border surveillance.”

The problem of regulation is a difficult issue around the world, Mr Ntsihlele says. Canada is a leader in drone regulation and an application to the country’s aviation regulator can secure a permit to fly one within 20 working days.

Earlier this year, an open letter was sent to the US Federal Aviation Administration by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International saying the industry could not afford any further delays in regulation.

“The technology is advancing faster than the regulations to govern it. The current regulatory void has left American entrepreneurs and others either sitting on the sidelines or operating in the absence of appropriate safety guidelines,” the letter read.

The South African Civil Aviation Authority is preparing regulations that are expected to be finalised by March next year.

Defence company Paramount’s head of advanced technologies and engineering, Jan Vermeulen, says that contributions from drone stakeholders in the dialogue on regulation development are crucial.

Wesley Versfeld of EasyUAV (UAV stands for unmanned aerial vehicle) says SA’s interim regulations allow commercial drones to be flown at a maximum range of 500m, and they must keep within line of sight. They cannot be flown near public roads or buildings and not within 5km-7km of airfields. He says SA’s regulations will have to balance weight classes with risk.

EasyUAV, a Krugersdorp company, says its drones are for commercial use, mostly in farming, surveillance and security. They are made locally but some components are imported. The firm builds multirotor and fixed-wing models.

“Even though the regulation is not open for discussion yet, it is critically important that we make these decisions together. Technology has evolved to such a degree that automated vehicles can fly even more safely than a piloted plane, if they are handled responsibly,” says Mr Versfeld.

“It would make sense to follow — not quite as stringently, but very closely — the requirements for a normal pilot’s licence. You must be able to understand radio technology and must show responsible, demonstrated skills of controlling the unit, like pilots must.

“If there are regulations in place, the market will grow. Some estimates indicate that on a global scale, the industry will be worth $20bn by 2020. I would say it could be a big market in SA.”

Denel has four drone models and there are prospects for further development. The Seeker II Surveillance System, which has been in operation for more than 30 years, operates at ranges of up to 250km. Its successor, the Seeker 400, can carry two laser-guided missiles.

“We will soon be looking at a helicopter-type platform and a new target drone. We have the expertise and very dedicated people here who can do it,” Mr Ntsihlele says.

Paramount recently released a new line for international buyers. The Civet has a 1kg payload and can fly for one hour at a 40km range, and the Mwari has a 5kg payload.

Military manufacturer Desert Wolf this year released the Skunk Riot Control Copter, which it says is “designed to control unruly crowds without endangering the lives of protesters or security staff”. Its aim is to “assist in preventing another Marikana”. The drone fires 80 pepper-spray paintballs a second and has on-board speakers to issue warnings to crowds.

Although drones can be used for war, they have enormous potential to do good. Social and industrial uses include in agriculture, transporting medicine to rural clinics, and for work that may put pilots’ lives in danger.

Drones are also widely used in the film industry and for television coverage of sporting events.

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Aeronautic Systems head John Monk is chairman of the national unmanned aircraft systems policy co-ordination committee tasked with investigating the integration of unmanned aircraft into SA’s airspace. “We test UAVs in military airspace and test the capabilities of their camera systems, including developing sense-and-avoid technologies and silent modes for better surveillance,” he says.

“What you can do with UAVs is huge. Agriculture is going to be one commercial industry that will be opened up. In Japan, all their crop spraying is done by drones.”

‘n Ekstra oog uit die lug

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Onbemande helikopters en vliegtuie (drones) ontwikkel deesdae vinnig as ’n opwindende nuwe werktuig vir presisieboere.
In ’n Amerikaanse ondersoek na die kommersiële gebruik van robot-helikopters en -vliegtuie vir hul lugvaartowerheid is onlangs bevind dat presisieboerdery een van die belowendste markte vir dié tegnologie is.
En mense soos Chris Anderson, oud-joernalis, skrywer en deesdae uitvoerende hoof
van 3-D Robotics, ’n maatskappy wat elektronika en lugvaartuie vervaardig, meen die toekoms van boerdery lê dalk in dié robot-vaartuie.
Anderson, wat al op die tydskrif Time se jaarlikse lys van top-100-denkers was, het onlangs op ’n konferensie in Amerika gesê hy meen onbemande lugvaartuie gaan een van die grootste bronne van inligting in die landbou word.
Talle maatskappye en entrepreneurs het al sulke produkte spesifiek vir die landbou ontwikkel, en die Amerikaanse federale lugvaartowerheid is nou besig om die nodige reëls en regulasies vir hul wettige kommersiële gebruik teen 2015 saam te stel.
Die belangstelling het ook na Suid-Afrika oorgespoel. Mnr. Wesley Versfeld van Krugersdorp het drie maande gelede sy stokperdjie in ’n besigheid omgeskep en die maatskappy EasyUAV (die UAV staan vir unmanned aerial vehicles) gestig, wat robot-helikopters bou en verkoop. Sedertdien het hy al vier verkoop – twee vir veiligheidspatrollies, een vir landmeting en een aan ’n saaiboer van Noordwes.
Die boer gebruik die helikopter om sy gewasse se vordering en stand op die land na te gaan.
Versfeld sê hy kan nie voorbly om navrae te beantwoord nie. Sowat die helfte is oor tuie vir sekuriteitsdoeleindes, maar die res is oor presisieboerdery en landmeting.
Die sagteware waarmee die vaartuie toegerus is, word nie net gebruik om probleemkolle op die land na te speur nie, maar kan ook ingespan word om ’n 3D-model te bou om byvoorbeeld die beste roete vir ’n nuwe pypleiding te identifiseer.
Die soort kamerastelsel wat die tuig het, bepaal die soort inligting wat ingesamel word. Dit wissel van gewone stilfoto’s en video in hoë resolusie tot infrarooi-foto’s.
Met gevorderde kameras wat hittewaarneming en multi-spektrale foto’s neem, kan die onbemande vaartuig selfs gebruik word om groeiprobleme en plantgesondheid na te speur wat nie met die blote oog of ’n gewone lugfoto gesien kan word nie.
Die inligting wat ingesamel word, kan ook gebruik word om plaag- en onkruidbestryding en bemesting te verfyn deur toediening tot probleemkolle te beperk.
Versfeld sê feitlik enige moderne digitale kamera kan met die hulp van ’n filter omskep word om infrarooi-foto’s vanaf die tuig te neem. ’n Spesiaal aangepaste kamera kan ook teen sowat R40 000 ingevoer word. Die sagteware is redelik duur. Uiteindelik kan die koste van so ’n toegeruste, onbemande tuig in die omgewing van R100 000 draai.
— MARLEEN SMITH
Foto: ’n Onbemande robot-helikopter neem videomateriaal in ’n wingerd. Aangesien die helikopters goedkoop is en relatief laag vlieg, kan dit gedetaileerde inligting oor wingerde, boorde en landerye versamel. Boere kan hul plaagbestryding daarvolgens aanpas of klein verskille in die grond se produktiwiteit waarneem. Foto: www.huffingtonpost.com

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