SA’s commercial drone sector takes off

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 22 Dec 2023
South Africa is seeing an increase in drone-focused skills development initiatives.
South Africa is seeing an increase in drone-focused skills development initiatives.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) services provider, QP Drone Tech says South Africa’s drone sector has grown remarkably over the last three years, with commercial drones being increasingly used across various industries.

According to the company, while South Africa has seen drone popularity increase over the years, use of UAVs had previously been limited to agriculture, mining and construction industries, as well as in hobby pursuits.

However, the advent of COVID-19 has propelled drone deployments, with service providers and manufacturers setting up presence locally, amid growing demand for the remotely piloted aircraft.

QP Drone Tech offers commercial drone services such as mapping, inspection, disaster management, and surveying to organisations specialising in a wide range of industries including mining, critical infrastructure, security and agriculture.

The Johannesburg-based firm also provides training on the use of drones, robotics, and other technologies to unemployed youth and school pupils.

Queen Ndlovu, CEO and founder of QP Drone Tech, tells ITWeb while still in the early stages, drones are increasingly being used for a host of applications in South Africa, fuelling job creation in the sector.

“South Africa’s drone market has experienced substantial growth over the last few years. It is reported that South Africa is the biggest user of drone technology in Africa,” explains Ndlovu.

“The mining sector is the biggest adopter of drone technology for security, stock piling surveillance and 3D modelling. This is followed by the film and entertainment industry, and the agricultural sector for precision farming. Other applications include using drones for disaster preparedness, in response to climate change – an area in which we specialise.”

According to research firm Industry ARC, South Africa’s small drones market is seeing fast growth, and is estimated to reach $134.5 million by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 22.35% from 2020 to 2025.

The growth of the local mining industry, developments in more data accurate drone technology, presence of the dominant players in drone hardware, are among factors driving the growth of the market, it says.

Some South African local government departments have been quick to recognise the advantages of putting drones to work.

South Africa’s first blood delivery drone service was introduced in 2019 by the South African National Blood Service.

The Department of Infrastructure Development has been using unmanned drones to monitor its infrastructure projects across Gauteng’s city region development corridors since 2018.

The Western Cape government says its Emergency Medical Services drone project has helped save many lives since it launched in 2020.

Cargo drone developer Dronamics has signed an agreement with Aramex to supply its remotely piloted drones to provide delivery services across various parts of the globe, including South Africa.

QP Drone Tech hosts workshops to upskill youth in drone skills.
QP Drone Tech hosts workshops to upskill youth in drone skills.

Regulatory quagmire

South Africa is seeing an increase in private and government organisations, such asnon-profit, South Africa Flying Labs, Girls Fly Programme in Africa and the Drone Council South Africa, that are introducing programmes and initiatives to encourage youth participation in the aviation sector.

The country is also working to introduce a position paper for Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management, aimed to provide guidelines on establishing a regulatory framework for the drone ecosystem, an initiative of the African Institute for Entrepreneurship (AIFE) and its stakeholders.

The position paper will help propel the country’s drone regulatory framework – to empower businesses for the commercial use of drones within low-risk environments.

While South Africa was the first country in Africa to approve drone regulations, it does not rank high in the Drone Readiness Index, meaning that there is still necessary regulatory work that needs to be done for safe and scalable advanced drone operations, according to Drone Industry Insights.

“There have also been debates about whether the regulation is too restrictive and if it should be improved,” it says.

In other parts of the continent, Rwanda and Kenya, for example, drones have been used over the last few years to deliver blood and medical supplies to doctors in rural areas. Botswana, Sudan, Zambia and Côte d’Ivoire are using mid-sized tactical drones in their military fleet.

The growing demand for drones in South Africa has prompted South Africa Flying Labs to collaborate with QP Drone Tech to host regular drone-focused workshops and training programmes.

According to Ndlovu, the forecast growth in the local drone market would be impossible to achieve without the necessary skills required to operate a drone.

Discussing future plans, Ndlovu points out QP Drone Tech is working on collaborations that will see it fulfil its vision of locally manufacturing drones in 2024.

“We are looking to partner with entities that possess a huge infrastructure for our manufacturing plant, since it is capital intensive. We will have a big drive on seeking investors for the manufacturing plant.

“We also require research and development in the aviation space, and theCouncil for Scientific and Industrial Research has agreed in principle to be one of the partners to come on board,” concludes Ndlovu.