Drone technology

At any given time, there is an estimated 30 000 to 50 000 drones in South Africa. Drones have begun to infiltrate various sectors in society. Drones can provide faster, safer and cheaper alternatives for the mining industry. “Mines have adopted drones for aerial surveys, which is a cheaper, faster and safer alternative to using traditional methods. It is much quicker and employees are not put into unsafe environments,” says United Drone Holdings CEO Sean Reitz. Here is why.

The pros

Security: drones can be used to patrol mines, making guards jobs working in larger mines safer and easier. Drones equipped with thermal imaging can greater identify copper, battery and diesel theft. They can also confirm intruder alarms before tactical teams are sent out. This way, drones can improve site security.

Faster: drones can move faster and see more than an on-site person. Further more, when equipped with additional technology, they can scan and analyse the landscape, getting a much greater view of the mine than before possible.

Environmental benefits: drones can conduct environmental studies, helping to validate remediation in mining.

The cons

Drone licenses are incredibly hard to acquire because of the legislation surrounding it.  According to Reitz, “a commercial drone is seen in the same light as a manned aircraft in the South African Civil Aviation Authority’s (SACAA’s) perspective, but it can be easier to get an operating licence for a manned aircraft than a drone.”

There are currently only 24 companies in South Africa with the licence to fly drones, and only one with the license allowing them to fly their drones beyond visual line of sight. Furthermore, all commercial drones are considered the same, there is no differentiation between low-risk drone operations and larger, high-risk drone operations. Considering drone regulations began in 2015, 24 is licenses is quite low. SACAA reports 340 applicants waiting to have their documents processed and a backlog of more than 500 aircraft waiting for the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems letter of approval authority, for airworthiness, which is proving to be a major concern. Reitz argues that, “This bottleneck is affecting development in the industry as well as increasing aviation safety risk, mainly because SACAA is lagging behind in the implementation and enforcement of regulation.”

The future of drone technology:

Reitz argues that there needs to be classifications put in place to differentiate drone purposes. Lighter drones should have a more open legislation as they are used in many creative fields and can help open the industry. He also argues that SACAA needs to invest more resources into speeding up the legislation process.

Drones can greatly contribute to South Africa’s economy and job creation, specifically youth employment. According to an economic-impact assessment completed by GOPA Group SA joint MD Dr Roelof Botha, the South African drone industry could have produced a turnover of R2-billion in 2017, if the industry was able to expand further, in addition to creating another 24 600 formal jobs and 9 700 informal jobs.

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