Drone technology takes flight
Drone technology is one of numerous technologies impacting the transport and logistics sector. MARISKA MORRIS looks at what is happening in this field
Amazon successfully delivered its first parcel by “air mail” on December 14, 2016. This was after it won approval from the British government to lift flying restrictions for drones. The company delivered an Amazon Fire TV and a bag of popcorn in 13 minutes from the moment of order. The drones are able to carry up to 2,27 kg and fly for up to 30 minutes.
While this is a big advancement in drone technology, Stefan Stroh, global leader of transport and logistics at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), argues that economic viability will be the determining factor in the future of drone delivery.
“In a metropolitan area where you have a driver who can deliver 20 packs in an hour, this is probably more effective than a drone that can transport only two to four kilograms, and has to fly back and forth all the time,” Stroh says.
Using drones for parcel delivery might not be all that practical, but other areas, such as surveillance, maintenance and accessing hard-to-reach places, are ideal for the use of drones. United Parcel Service, along with Zipline, a robotics company, and Gavi, a non-profit organisation, are delivering blood to remote parts of Rwanda.
The first successful delivery took place on October 14, 2016. Fixed-wing drones are used, which can make up to 150 deliveries per day.
Legislation on the use of drones will determine what technology is adopted. Stroh believes Poland is a good example of a country with well-defined, comprehensive drone legislation. “It is very clear that Poland is one of the key drivers for drone adoption,” he says. South Africa also has very comprehensive drone legislation, which is currently being amended.
In South Africa, a company operating drones will need an air service licence (ASL) and a remote operator certificate (ROC) which can be obtained from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA). The issuing of the ROC costs R3 710 with a R2 490 annual renewal fee.
Every additional aircraft registered on the ROC would add a yearly cost of R640. Companies need to have third-party liability worth a minimum of R500 000 per drone. Pilots manning the drone will need to obtain a remote pilot’s licence (RPL). The issuing of a RPL costs R500, as does renewal every second year.
These fees exclude administration, registration of the drone and other examination fees. Currently, there are numerous SACAA-approved flight schools that offer drone-pilot certification. The course has a theoretical and practical component. Taking this course at a flight school will cost around R22 850. A radio licence and English proficiency exam is also required.
“The theory instruction covers drone-related information such as batteries, data links and components – as well as aviation-related information such as navigation, flight planning and aerodynamics – and a whole range of subjects that manned pilots also study in order to become accredited,” explains Rick Bosman from Cranfield Aviation Training in Gauteng.
Students also need a Class-4 medical certificate from an aviation-accredited medical practitioner. “Practical instruction includes flight planning, radio communication, safety and basic flight,” says Jacques Lourens from EasyUAV in Krugersdorp.
There are different ratings for certification according to aircraft and operation. “For example, standard rating is for a small craft (less than seven kilograms) flying no more one kilometre away from the operator,” he says.
Depending on the rating of the certification, different restrictions will apply. “Beyond visual line of sight is one of the forms of certification, for example,” Bosman explains.
Pilots can also be certified according to the aircraft. “There are three possible certification ratings namely: multi-rota, fixed-wing and helicopter,” says Ian Melamed from ProWings Training in Bronkhorstspruit. Despite this comprehensive legislation and training, drone technology is still somewhat restricted. It is, for example, illegal to transport goods using drones in South Africa.
Special permission is also needed to operate over roads, buildings or people. Despite these restrictions, the use of drone technology continues to develop. “Drone technology as a form of delivery is still in the developmental stages,” says Lourens.
“Drones are more commonly used as an added layer of security for high-value cargo. Another trend that is starting to pick up is the use of drones for inventory management. This is, however, also still in the development stage,” he comments.
Melamed mentions the use of tethered drones for high-value cargo. “This is a drone that is connected directly to the vehicle and provides ‘real time’ view of the vehicle in motion. In South Africa, the company Fleet Protect has access to this technology,” he says.
A leader in the use of drones in South Africa, RocketMine, which provides surveillance and data collection, has been promoting drone technology since last year.
“In 2016, we used our role to provide a more cost effective and safer means of conducting mining inspections, and to spread the word about
drone applications in the mining, agricultural, construction, water and forestry industries,” says Vera Khumalo, junior marketing and events manager at RocketMine.
“RocketMine is planning to position itself as the leader in survey and mapping applications in mining, and as a thought leader educating the African market on drone applications,” Khumalo comments. With 11 pilots, RocketMine is open to collaborating with transport companies.
Stroh says: “The use of drones makes sense in maintenance of railway tracks. You don’t always want someone with a car driving along to inspect the tracks.” In 2015, drones were used to monitor railway tracks in New Mexico, United States (US). German railway operator Deutsche Bahn also used drones to help stop graffiti artists defacing the trains in 2013.
Khumalo agrees that drones can be useful in the railways. “There are a number of solutions that can help with passenger safety, emergency response, theft and inspections,” she says.
Although drone technology continues to grow in popularity, she warns that drones will be limited by technical capabilities such as battery capacity and drone laws.
With the continued innovations, and an increase in demand for services using drones, there will also be a demand for policy makers to improve the laws applicable to drones.