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Drone Council launches to prepare SA for fourth industrial revolution

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ICT industry stakeholders, in partnership with the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), have launched the Drone Council South Africa, to propel SA into the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

The council was launched by DCDT minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams during a webinar this morning, under the theme: “Strategic partnerships to accelerate a national drone-industry growth strategy”.

The Drone Council South Africa is a non-profit organisation that seeks to facilitate growth of the South African drone economy through the implementation of various programmes and initiatives, including drone industry collaboration, business incubation, industry sectoral optimisation and investment, ‘massification’ of drone pilot training, SA industry global competitiveness, industry transformation, harnessing manufacturing and maintenance capacity.

Seeds of the council’s establishment were first planted in March 2019, when the then Department of Economic Development (now Department of Trade, Industry and Competition) initiated a drone economy dialogue between government, the drone industry, training institutions, aviation companies, technology firms research bodies and regulators, which form part of the council.

Delivering the keynote presentation today, Ndabeni-Abrahams noted the DCDT has the mammoth task of driving the 4IR, and reassured the council that the department will be a prolific partner.

“This is a historic moment in SA. When our department was mandated to champion 4IR, one of the things we identified was the need to establish a solid foundation for drone operations in SA,” noted Ndabeni-Abrahams.

“We then introduced drone piloting programmes in partnership with the Media, Information and Communication Technologies Sector Education and Training Authority, which will play a key role in driving the digital economy.

“However, as policy-makers, we hadn’t created the right regulations and legislations to create an enabling environment to accelerate drone services in SA. The Department of Transport has compiled a report which details how the legislations will work going forward.”

Ndabeni-Abrahams highlighted the need for transformation in the aviation industry and for the council to collaborate with the entire ecosystem to create effective partnerships.

“Strong partnerships with organisations from various sectors are important in making a significant contribution to the economic growth of SA through skills development, job creation and elevation of the aviation industry. We are in the process of digitising postal services, and drones can bridge many gaps in the sector. We are currently in the midst of a global crisis, and drones can play an important role in the healthcare sector.”

Department of Communications and Digital Technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Department of Communications and Digital Technologies minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Playing catch-up

Board members of the council include Angelina Ntombikayise Maseko, chairperson of drone supplier Rugged Africa; Ken Venn, founder of drone firm UAVI; Shaun Ledlie, president of the Association of Aviation Training Organisations of South Africa; Kelebogile Molopyane, CEO for AB4IR; Jack Shilubana, MD of Ntiyiso Aviation Services; and Irvin Phenyane, chairperson of the Drone Council South Africa and a non-executive-director of Airports Company South Africa and the Transport Education and Training Authority .

The webinar included a panel of international speakers and investors who form part of the council and who have helped to grow the drone industry elsewhere in Africa, including California-based Zipline, which developed its capacity to deliver essential services before and during the COVID-19 era in rural Rwanda and Ghana.

Other partners include the South African Civil Aviation Authority, Swoop Aero from Australia, Wingcopter from Germany and Astral Aero from Kenya.

Phenyane pointed out that drones can play a crucial role in the supply and demand value chain and in ensuring the delivery of essential goods and services across various sectors, including industrial, agricultural, healthcare, government and security services.

“Our sluggish response to global drone technology trends has put us on a backfoot and has exposed SA’s lost opportunities.

“SA was the first country in Africa to approve drone (RPAS) regulations, but subsequent international investment has 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.”

After several consultations between government and the Drone Council South Africa, the Drone Economy Workgroup was established and has developed position papers on three work streams:

  • Drone industry SMME incubation and licensing
  • Drone industry development and commercialisation
  • Drone industry data and regulatory environment

“New drone technology skills for graduates, current aviators and unemployed youth are being considered. Many developing countries are now using drone technology in many 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, and therefore, increasing business and consumer demand will be highly dependent on lowering the costs and eradicating barriers for easy access of drones,” added Phenyane.

Commenting on the launch, Arthur Goldstuck, head of World Wide Worx, pointed out that the drone council is a good idea if it is intended to assist and promote the industry as a whole, and enhance collaboration, rather than add to the existing burden of regulation.

“South Africa has been sluggish from a formal government point of view, often holding back private enterprise. As is always the case with new technology, government has to be shown what can be done before it gets involved in creating an enabling environment, and often actively holds back that enablement.

“As a result, it would be preferable for government to stay out of the way of those who truly are driving the industry forward. We also tend to be in thrall to Silicon Valley instead of acknowledging and championing local efforts. A home-grown company like Aerobotics is a pioneer and world leader in the use of drone technology for economic benefit, and should be highlighted ahead of the likes of Zipline, noble as the work of this California company has been in Africa,” notes Goldstuck.

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