Sky is the limit now for local drone industry

The long-awaited launch of a body to co-ordinate, regulate and promote South Africa’s drone industry has been formalised with the unveiling of the Drone Council South Africa.

While the country has long had a drone industry of sorts, its development has been haphazard and piecemeal, resulting in the loss of many opportunities to grow the sector.

This is particularly so on the African continent, where drones are making significant inroads, driven by the involvement of foreign firms rather than African ones.

Minister launches drone council during industry webinar

The council was launched by Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, Communications and Digital Technologies minister, during a webinar with the theme ‘Strategic partnerships to accelerate a national drone-industry growth strategy’.

A non-profit organisation, the council will focus on several key areas, including: drone industry collaboration, business incubation, industry investment, drone pilot training, global competitiveness, industry transformation, and developing drone manufacturing and maintenance capacity.

Drone used for firefighting. Photo credit: Fire Protection Association of Southern Africa

The Drone Council SA was initiated in 2019 and its official launch planned for May 2020. However, this was postponed due to the national lockdown.

Sluggish response has put the industry on back foot

Speaking during the webinar, council chairperson Irvin Phenyane noted: “Our sluggish response to global drone technology trends has put us on a back foot and has exposed South Africa’s lost opportunities.”

He said SA was the first country in Africa to approve drone regulations, but subsequent international investment had gone elsewhere in Africa.

“South Africa is now playing catch-up. However, after 16 months of consultation, there is now industry consensus that all stakeholders must be rallied under one national strategy,” he stated.

“Many developing countries are using drone technology in industries like town planning, project monitoring, rail services, road maintenance, crop spraying, delivery of goods and the security industry. The accelerated growth of the drone industry is paramount to the economic growth of our country.”

Drones provide many services in Tanzania and Rwanda

In August 2017, for example, US-based automated logistics company, Zipline, launched what was touted as the world’s largest drone delivery service in Tanzania.

With four distribution centres, more than 100 drones and up to 2 000 flights a day, the service provides on-demand delivery of health products to more than 1 000 healthcare facilities across the country.

Zipline drone launch in Africa. Photo credit: Zipline

This followed Zipline’s successful drone delivery of emergency blood to transfusion clinics across Rwanda, which began in 2016.

Medical deliveries and health services via drone

“Millions of people across the world die each year because they can’t get the medicine they need when they need it,” said Zipline CEO, Keller Rinaudo, at the time.

“It’s a problem in both developed and developing countries. But it’s a problem we can help solve with on-demand drone delivery. And African nations are showing the world how it’s done.”

Zipline’s achievements in Tanzania and Rwanda have raised expectations as that what drone delivery can achieve in other sectors in Africa.

Consumer-focused businesses, for example, hope the machines will expedite improved delivery of goods to more and more consumers across the continent, accessing new markets and serving people who live in isolated places with limited traditional infrastructure.

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