Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) manufacturer Denel Dynamics (which also produces missiles and space technology) has called for a national programme to integrate UAVs (popularly called drones) into the country’s civilian-controlled airspace. Controlled airspace is airspace in which all air traffic is monitored and directed by air traffic control.
Addressing the aviation session of the recent Southern African Transport Conference in Pretoria, Denel Dynamics executive manager: programmes Patrick Ndlovu urged a collaborative effort between UAV manufacturers, air navigation equipment manufacturers, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), Air Traffic & Navigation Services (ATNS) and other airspace users.
The local UAV industry is proposing a three-phase programme that would extend over 18 years. Phase 1 would last five years and establish the safety regime for UAVs. Phase 2 would integrate UAV operations into controlled airspace “to a certain level” – for example, up to an altitude of 1 500 feet; this would also last five years. Phase 3 would achieve full integration of UAV operations into controlled airspace.
He admitted that this sounded a long time, but noted that much had to be done – it was a “mega task”. A possible technological aid would be the development of miniaturised, but long-range, transponders, which would allow air traffic control to track small UAVs. (It is the small UAVs that are the prime safety concern; large ones can easily be detected and tracked by radar and can accommodate existing transponders.)
Another crucial role for the proposed programme was simply to bring the key role-players together, so they could come to a mutual understanding of the needs of and potential opportunities provided by, UAVs. Currently, he observed, the ATNS infrastructure for handling UAVs was totally inadequate. And relations between the UAV industry and the SACAA were currently in a “standoff”.
South Africa was among the first countries to promulgate regulations for UAVs. Unfortunately, these are onerous. They require public liability insurance of R500 000 for each UAV. UAV pilots have to be retested every year, including medical tests. Registered UAVs can be operated at only one designated site. And the SACAA demands an excessive staff complement for UAV operators – each operator has to have an operations manager, a safety manager and a training manager. But, in the real world, many UAV-based services enterprises are one-man operations, which simply cannot meet these requirements. Further, there is rapid growth in the number of UAVs operated in South Africa and rapid growth in UAV service demand.
This has consequences. The use of UAVs to provide commercial services in South Africa is currently estimated to be a R2-billion market. But, of that, only R300-million is accounted for by officially registered and certified operations. The remaining R1.7-billion or so is estimated to be generated by ‘informal’ operations. It is believed that the formal UAV sector has created some 3 600 jobs, while the informal UAV sector has generated nearly 31 000 jobs.