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Position paper to solve SA’s drone industry hiccups

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 28 Sept 2022

South Africa is working to introduce a position paper for Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM), to provide guidelines on establishing a regulatory framework for the drone ecosystem.

The announcement was made yesterday by Tamiko Sher, executive director of entrepreneur consultancy, the African Institute for Entrepreneurship (AIFE), during a presentation themed “Flying robots and unmanned traffic management”, at the hybrid SA Innovation Summit 2022.

According to Sher, AIFE, in collaboration with aviation industry stakeholders, has embarked on an initiative to draft a position paper for unmanned traffic management, also known as advanced air mobility in SA.

UTM is an air traffic management ecosystem under development for autonomously-controlled operations of unmanned aerial systems by the US Federal Aviation Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in partnership with other federal partner agencies and organisations across the globe.

The consortium is exploring concepts of operation, information exchange requirements, and a supporting framework to enable multiple unmanned aerial systems operations by identifying services, roles/responsibilities, protocols, software functions and infrastructure requirements for enabling the management of low-altitude unmanned aerial systems operations.

Sher pointed out SA’s position paper, expected to be introduced before the end of the year, will help propel SA’s drone regulatory framework – to empower businesses for the commercial use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles within low-risk environments.

The impact-driven paper will focus on the local market and its unique challenges and potential to help support the local ecosystem.

“The UTM position paper hopes to help change the drone industry landscape by envisioning the future of an innovative drone tech evolution in SA,” she explained.

“It seeks to develop and launch a thought leadership position paper in 2022 that will become the platform to ignite the industry ecosystem to develop the industry, help create businesses, jobs and economic growth in SA. The question is not whether drones are good for a particular industry; rather it’s – is there an industry that cannot benefit from drones?”

AIFE is a non-profit research and thought leadership organisation established to focus on the entrepreneurship opportunities of new industries and emerging technology.

Detailing the value of drones, Sher pointed out the multi-sectorial technology holds infinite promise in SA’s burgeoning industry, with applications ranging from delivering goods and medical products, monitoring climate change, carrying out search and rescue operations, safety and security, commercial drones in real estate, as well as monitoring and planning in mining.

In recent years, several organisations have been established to help propel SA’s drone industry, including the Drone Council South Africa, the AB4IR (Africa Beyond the Fourth Industrial Revolution) and South Africa Flying Labs.

Rapidly-developing sector

The global market for UTM is estimated to reach $791 million in 2022 and is projected to grow to $1.6 billion by 2026, noted Sher. Growth in the global market is set to be driven by increasing UAV traffic in the commercial airspace.

Prior to embarking on the position paper, the UTM Position Paper Working Committee was established last year to oversee the project.

It consists of a passionate, large team of drone and aviation industry thought leaders who are determined to make a difference in the local drone tech industry space, she stated.

“This technology is developing rapidly and the industry is growing in SA. The legislation and related infrastructure are key to the industry’s advancement. UTM incorporates considerations of the drones in the air, on the ground and their seamless integration into traditional aviation.

“There are UTM systems developing in other countries that SA could benefit from by acquiring knowledge-based learnings. Without UTM, the drone industry cannot grow,” she warned.

Last year, AIFE released a research paper, titled: “Drone publication insights”, which highlights the opportunities and challenges faced by entrepreneurs who try to break into the local drone industry.

Among the key findings, the report reveals that while the conventional aviation industry in SA is saturated, the drone industry has failed to soar, mainly as a result of the regulatory rigmarole and expense associated with running a business in the industry.

Despite the growing use of drones locally, the sluggish response to drone technology innovation has put SA on the back-foot and has exposed many lost opportunities, notes the study.

“When an industry is in its baby stage, we need people to endorse it, we need venture capitalists to help fund it, we need researchers to study it and share information.

“And we need to develop business models that will make this industry move forward and regulatory frameworks that remap challenges. We observed a lack of integration in the local ecosystem − collaboration between key stakeholders is critical,” Sher asserted.