Although South Africa was, only a few years ago, the leader in Africa in the development, deployment and operation of uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs, also known as remotely-piloted aircraft systems or RPAS, or more simply called drones), a number of African countries had since overtaken it in terms of operating such systems, exploiting their capabilities and developing their ‘drone economies’. So pointed out Drone Council South Africa chairperson Irvin Phenyane in his address to the Drones and Unmanned Aviation 2020 conference on Tuesday.
A key reason why several other African countries had overtaken, and developed their drone economies further than, South Africa, was that they had attracted international investment in their UAV sectors. Such investment had not flowed to South Africa, he reported, because the drone environment in the country discouraged foreign investors. As a consequence, South Africa now had to play catch-up with those other African countries. To this end, the Drone Council was developing what it called ‘Operation Catch-Up 2023’.
South Africa had first developed and operated UAVs in the 1980s, and UAVs were being used today to help patrol the country’s borders. But the country’s drone sector as a whole now lagged far behind global developments, he warned. Drones had become disruptive technologies, already being used for parcel deliveries and, in the coming years, for cargo and even passenger transport. They had become part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), although Africa as a whole was still unready for the 4IR.
Also important in this regard was a technology identified by the World Economic Forum as one of the top ten emerging technologies for this year – electric aviation. This had applications for UAVs, but South Africa did not feature in the development of electric aviation.
Many in the local industry saw the country’s drone regulatory framework as the greatest obstacle to the development of the sector. This was because either the regulations were too restrictive, or their implementation by the regulator was slow and inefficient, causing delays in the issuing of the requisite rights and permits. This had discouraged investment in the sector.
Phenyane pointed out that the country’s UAV regulations had been written on the basis of imperfect and limited knowledge. The South African drone industry had to help inform the regulators. The industry wanted the regulations to be relaxed, but the regulators naturally didn’t want this. “If you push them [the regulators] too much, they just dig in their heels,” he observed. What was required was to lobby the government.
To lobby the government, the industry had to be organised. Companies could not spend all their time focused on government policy and regulation. And that was why the Drone Council had been created, with its formal launch having been earlier this year. “For us, [this was] the establishment of a value chain advocacy and lobby body,” he affirmed. “Strong and independent industry bodies cannot be bought. The approach of the Drone Council is through the entire value chain. … We are an industry-driven initiative.”
The Drone Council aspired to become, for its industry, the equivalent to the Minerals Council South Africa (formerly the Chamber of Mines) for the mining industry. That is, respected by and influential with government and capable of undertaking research and analysis. That required funding. “Money buys you technical studies, lobbying staff and access to decisions-makers,” he noted.
The Drone Council had a number of practical objectives it sought to achieve. One of these was to establish a government-drone industry forum. Another was to develop a dynamic drone economy strategy for the country. Yet another was to promote the signing of memoranda of understanding between the regulators and the sector education and training authorities, regarding UAV-related training courses. And, among yet other objectives, mobilise State-owned companies so that they could be used to accelerate the growth of the local drone sector by contracting for services. (He cautioned that electricity utility Eskom had issued a tender for drone services but that the specifications had been unrealistic and so the tender had failed.) The Council was also focused on the current high cost of training and how to bring it down.
“One size fits none in Africa – models can’t necessarily be lifted directly from one country and replicated in another,” stated Phenyane. “Africa is our partner, not competition.”