SA surge in applications for drone flights during lockdown

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While some parts of the world are using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the South African government insists on restrictions of these flying robots.

In terms of the Disaster Management Act, the Department of Transport (DOT) has put regulations in place against the flying of drones.

The regulations form part of government’s COVID-19 national lockdown to prevent the spread of the virus that has infected 3 158 South Africans and killed 54, to date.

Despite the restrictions, the DOT issued a statement noting the surge in the number of applications for permission to fly drones.

In the statement, transport minister Fikile Mbalula appeals to pilots and drone owners to comply with the regulations.

According to Mbalula, the South African Civil Aviation Authority has also received a handful of requests from small private aircraft owners, requesting permission to fly their aircraft for various business-related activities, including farm owners wanting to fly into various provinces to check on operations.

The minister states: “While these applications are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis, it is important to remember the country is under lockdown for a reason. Restrictions are there to stop the spread of COVID-19. It is a matter of life and death.

“We cannot put lives at risk in an effort to rescue unessential business operations. If it is not deemed urgent, it must wait. We simply cannot put a price tag on human lives.”

Drones put to work

Elsewhere in the world, drones are being used by some industries and governments as a solution to fight the pandemic.

In China’s healthcare industry, drones have been used for disinfecting purposes.

In February, DJI, the Chinese company that manufactures drones, revealed a $1.5 million investment aimed at helping to fight the coronavirus.

The drone-maker pledged funds to help contain the outbreak by adapting its Agras series of agricultural spraying drones to spray disinfectant in potentially affected areas within the city of Wuhan.

After rounds of research and testing, teams developed best practices for spraying a chlorine or ethyl alcohol-based disinfectant from the air.

The company said sprayed areas included factories, residential areas and hospitals, covering more than 600 million square metres, and doing it 50 times faster than traditional methods.

In the US, the town of Elizabeth, New Jersey, announced it will use drones as a law enforcement tool by flying around the city broadcasting a voice telling people to stop gathering, disperse and go home.

Data and analytics company GlobalData believes the use of drones in response to COVID-19 will make technology part and parcel of today’s society.

GlobalData notes drones are already being used around the world as a law enforcement tool to order the public back to their homes and to disinfect public places. They are also starting to be used to deliver food and medicines to the housebound.

David Bicknell, principal analyst of thematic research at GlobalData, comments: “Drones are here to stay and, despite public reservations over privacy, the public will have no choice but to get used to them.

“UK police forces have used drones to monitor countryside walkers who should have stayed at home. In China, drones equipped with thermal sensors have been used to find sick people walking around in public places who should be at home. In some African countries, drones are already being used to deliver blood transfusion samples. All this activity is good economic news for drone makers such as DJI, Parrot and Yuneec.”

The data and analytics company highlights that drone manufacturing companies stand to benefit over a 12-month period from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In Ireland, start-up Manna Aero has begun a drone delivery service in Moneygall, delivering prescription medicine to vulnerable housebound people. There will no doubt be further regulatory hurdles to overcome surrounding increased use of drones, but aviation authorities will be looking to learn from each other’s experiences to speed up regulation,” concludes Bicknell.

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