Flying Labs established to help SA’s drone industry take off

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ICT industry stakeholders have collaborated to establish South Africa Flying Labs, a robotics innovation hub, to expedite SA’s drone regulations and help create more jobs in the sector.

Announced at the recent Drone and Unmanned Aviation Conference, the innovation-focused organisation forms part of the Flying Labs Network, a global platform that co-creates and facilitates a network of local knowledge hubs in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The hubs build on existing expertise in drones, data and artificial intelligence, to accelerate the positive impact of local aid, health, development as well as environmental solutions through the use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The global network is made up of hundreds of industry experts across more than 30 countries, who provide guidance and expertise to members across the world.

The South African arm of the organisation is led by three key aviation industry partners: QP Drone Tech,Tinghwazi Consulting and Vula Air Technologies.

Its list of stakeholders includes the Drone Council of South Africa, the Tshimologong Makers Place and the University of the Witwatersrand’s Enterprise faculty.

They will assist the organisation with the key objective of addressing SA’s sluggish response to developing modern drone regulations, while helping to empower various industries through the implementation of several initiatives to help support local ecosystems, create new job opportunities and businesses that offer robotics-as-a-service.

Queen Ndlovu, MD of South Africa Flying Labs and founder of QP Drone Tech.
Queen Ndlovu, MD of South Africa Flying Labs and founder of QP Drone Tech.

Speaking to ITWeb during a telephone interview, Queen Ndlovu, MD of South Africa Flying Labs and founder of QP Drone Tech, pointed out that despite many ground-breaking drone applications in Africa, SA still lacks formalised regulations that will encourage multi-industry growth through fully integrating UAV systems into supply chains within an enabling regulatory environment.

“The key challenges facing SA’s drone industry include the huge digital divide, regulatory inflexibility and complexity, and the high barrier to entry for drone technology adoption.

“South Africa Flying Labs seeks to find solutions for these drawbacks through supporting industry stakeholders such as the Drone Council of South Africa to lobby for regulatory reforms. This includes ensuring ease of entry of entrepreneurs into industries and simplifying licensing processes at the basic level,” explained Ndlovu.

As part of the global network, South Africa Flying Labs has direct access to the expertise of robotics organisation WeRobotics and over 30 other Flying Labs within the network, including access to the Flying Labs Knowledge Sharing Platform, WeShare.

The organisation also has direct access to expert training, multiple projects and funding opportunities, professional workshops, free passes to conferences, select hardware and software solutions and new partners, among others.

Flying Labs is setting up its offices at the Innovation Hub in Pretoria, Gauteng.

Upskilling in STEM skills

Although SA has seen drone popularity increase in recent years, drone use has been mainly focused on agriculture and construction, as well as in hobby pursuits.

In 2019, the South African National Blood Service, in partnership with the Western Cape Blood Service, introduced the country’s first blood delivery drone to deliver blood and medical supplies to doctors in rural areas.

In other parts of Africa – Rwanda, Kenya and Nigeria, for example – drones have for years been used for the delivery of essential goods and services across various sectors, including industrial, agricultural, healthcare, government and security services.

According to Ndlovu, a large part of the Flying Labs will focus on offering science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related skills development programmes, through initiatives targeted at empowering both youth and corporate employees.

While the organisation is a social impact non-profit, it will, via industry partners, offer ICT-related products and services to aviation players for commercial purposes.

“There is still a lack of understanding of drone technology and the value it can add for industries. The Flying Labs model is focused on empowering people across the board, from children to adults, including those at executive level.

“We will partner with Flying Labs in other countries and push for drone-based deliveries in SA’s healthcare sector, and for training of disaster management and emergency personnel to incorporate drone technology as part of their work tools to bring about efficiencies and reduce potential loss of life.”

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