Understanding the vast benefits of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology is a strategic priority for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), as it is proving to have many applications within society worldwide.
“As a result, UAV research is being done through a joint effort between the CSIR, some government departments, universities and other aerospace and technology companies which realise the potential benefits and the global move toward the use of UAVs,” says CSIR manager of the Aerospace Industry Support Initiative, an initiative of the Department of Trade and Industry, Marié Botha.
A small UAV project is under way in conjunction with the Joint Aerospace Steering Committee, and a three-year UAV project researching civil commercial appli- cation, headed by the CSIR in conjunction with the Department of Science and Technology, which includes universities, is also in progress.
UAVs offer military and defence forces a safer alternative to sending troops into hostile areas. Unmanned vehicles, used for assignments below the surface or in aerial situations, in the longer term, cost less than what would normally be spent on training soldiers, transportation and medical expenses.
“We are focusing on research that involves working with the South African Army to develop future designs to increase the knowledge base on the force multiplication benefits of UAVs. The military will need UAVs and this is a trend worldwide,” says CSIR competence area manager of aeronautics Desmond Barker.
The CSIR adds that it is also focusing on the applications of the technology in many other segments of society.
“The biggest benefit will probably initially be achieved in the civil and commercial applications of UAVs,” says Barker, adding that the applications of UAVs could extend across a range of industries, such as mining and construc- tion, and include border and fisheries surveillance.
The CSIR notes that, unfortunately, most of the relevant South African governmental agencies industries have not fully embraced the UAV concept and its many different applications. “Although people are aware of the technology and of some of its advantages, they have not attempted to incorporate it into their operations,” he notes, adding that the result is that South Africa is lagging far behind many countries worldwide in increasing the benefits of UAVs in force multiplication.
“The concept of UAVs is not fully appre- ciated and, thus, is not being implemented,” he says, pointing out that the rest of the world is ahead of South Africa because they have embraced UAV systems and actively implement them.
“UAV technology is useful across many different scenarios because it can be ubiquitous and highly automated; there- fore, UAVs and floating crafts, such as aerostats and heli-kites, which are balloon-kite crafts, can operate in inhospitable environments,” says Barker.
UAVs can provide significant collateral surveillance capability to support, among many other roles, the antirhino poaching efforts in South Africa, he explains.
“Low-noise and smart sensor technology that can detect humans or animals concealed under leaves and thick undergrowth would need to be used,” he adds.
UAVs are currently being developed as one of many solutions to rhino poaching, Botha notes.
Border safeguarding is another area that the CSIR believes can hugely benefit from using UAVs. “Many countries and many states in America have successfully adopted the technology as a means of safeguarding borders,” says Barker.
Further, the CSIR points out that it is working with several companies in South Africa, such as defence equipment manufacturer Denel, and defence and security innovations company Paramount, to keep abreast of global research into UAV technologies
“The CSIR’s research Modular UAVs have been supplied to Stellenbosch University and to the University of Johannesburg, with one at the CSIR laboratory, to provide a research platform that enables universities to keep abreast of technological developments,” says Botha.
Meanwhile, Barker notes that the CSIR is also focusing on attempting to re-establish gas-turbine-engine design and development technologies and capabilities in South Africa for potential use in high-speed UAVs s and even light jet aircraft.
“We are aiming to design gas turbine engines and, if possible, re-establish the manufacturing capabilities in the country. Not many people are aware that South Africa built five gas turbines in the late 1980s under Project Apartment, but the programme was cancelled. Gas turbine design and manufacture are monopolised by the US and a few countries in Europe, namely the UK, France and Russia, while China is trying to enter the design and manufacturing market of these engines,” he says.
The CSIR is currently recruiting national experts in gas turbines and propulsion technology to develop a 3 kN core engine, which could be upgraded to 6 kN, with a fan module attached,” says Barker, high- lighting that the project is still in the con- ceptual design stage.
“These engines are the propulsion units of the future and companies, such as State-owned power utility Eskom and State-owned logistics group Transnet, could possibly find major applications in the future using this form of propulsion,” says Barker.
“The multidisciplined work being done at the CSIR is world class,” says Botha, adding that the council works for the societal benefit of the country.