They can be irritating and invasive, but, if used correctly, drones can create jobs to feed a growing industry.
This is according to Tim Willis, chief operating officer of Cape Town-based Aerobotics, a technical agricultural company that uses drones to detect pests and diseases in crops.
Earlier this month it hosted an exhibition, AeroCon, at False Bay Rugby Club, for those interested in becoming drone pilots.
“It can take up to three years to get a commercial drone licence and can cost over R250 000. This is why so many commercial drone operators are shutting down,” said Jason English, one of the speakers and CEO of CG Holdings, which has investments in South African drone operator Prommac.
“Add to this the strict requirements of many large industrial facilities and corporations with respect to ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) compliance, and the costs are exorbitant, and that’s before you’ve even purchased a drone,” said Mr English.
Mr Willis said farmers lost 15 to 20% of their crops each year, and drones could help to bring those numbers down by flying 60m to 80m over fields and using data analytics and 3D models to spot problems.
But the drones need qualified pilots.
AeroCon drew in the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), Wesgro as well as drone hardware and software suppliers and other related companies. It was attended by about 50 drone enthusiasts, almost all of them men.
According to Mr Willis, two types of licences are needed to fly a drone commercially – a pilot’s licence and a remote operating certificate licence.
Someone who sees the need for registered drone pilots is olive oil man Steve Wilson of Wilson’s Foods.
“It’s a business move for my retirement, doing something I love (flying) and getting paid for it,” he said.
After researching agricultural drones, he came across Cape Town-based Aerobotics.
He’s been undergoing training for several months with the UAV Industries Academy based in Observatory.
“Not easy because we can’t go to any field and fly. We need to get permission from the landowner,” said Mr Wilson. And so he has been practising at his Ottery factory, and also at an outdoor facility near Malmesbury. And almost one year later, with 30 hours flying under his belt, he expects to get his remote pilot’s licence soon.
Mr Wilson said there was a dire shortage of licenced pilots in South Africa. The industry was over-regulated and getting set up was expensive, he said.
“I’ve spent R140000 on the hardware, R26 000 on the training and R22 000 on insurance,” said Mr Wilson.
According to Pappie Maja, spokesperson for the SA Civil Aviation Authority, the downside of drones includes safety, security and cyber risks.
“Drones are made from consumer-grade electronics. If they fail, they could create a fire or they could harm citizens and property. This is why drone operation requires separate rules,” said Mr Maja.
Mr English said recent incidents in the UK showed why drone regulations had to be tough: at Gatwick Airport, planes had been grounded after drones had been seen over the airport, and a man had been sentenced to five years in jail after using a drone to smuggle drugs, SIM cards and cellphones into a Liverpool prison.
Mr Maja said South Africa had more than 13000 aircraft on the South African Aircraft Register.
“The country’s airspace is relatively congested and busy with a variety of operations, including, among others, helicopters, recreational aircraft, hot-air balloons as well as jets carrying large numbers of passengers,” he said.
He said the illegal use of a drone could lead to a R50000 fine, imprisonment, or both.
Eitan Stern, of Legalese, told the exhibition that there were plans to overhaul regulations to create a better balance between protecting the public and nurturing fresh opportunities.
African countries were embracing drone technology, he said, and were stimulating innovation in servicing oil rigs, the film industry and journalism, agriculture and humanitarian aid work among other things.
According to the State of the Drone report in South Africa, in 2017, 40 000 drones with cameras were sold countrywide.
Michael Blignaut, of Integrated Aerial Systems, said people were forking out a lot of money for drones – anything from R1000 for miniature drones, such as the Blade Inductrix, to around R20000 for the Matrice 600 Pro and even R40000 for the Phantom 4 Pro.