• The drone market has boomed when mass production began, resulting in a huge decline in prices. Picture: REUTERS

  • Aerial Monitoring Solutions MD and founder Adam Rosman, who was part of a committee that worked with the South African Civil Aviation Authority on UAV legislation, says SA is one of the most progressive countries in the world in this regard. Picture: SUPPLIED

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THE MD and founder of Aerial Monitoring Solutions, Adam Rosman — an aeronautical engineer who once designed rockets but now works in unmanned aerial system production and implementation — confirmed that he hates the word drones.

"The industry is moving away from it as much as possible. When I employ people I ask them what they think of drones, and the usual response is of some hellfire missile blowing up civilians. Now we prefer UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles," he says.

Rosman recently addressed a packed Mensa speaker evening in Johannesburg, tracing the violent history of UAVs and their more recent commercial development. In 1849, Austria filled balloons with bombs fixed to tethered lines and released them on Venice. "This wasn’t really a UAV as there was no control system," says Rosman. "But it wasn’t bad for 1849!"

Shortly after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, the mechanical gyroscope was invented to control the altitude, attitude and direction of aircraft.

By 1930, there was quite a boom in the UAV market for militaries across the world, although they were still intended for one-way use — "they were essentially aerial torpedoes, so the start of cruise missiles", says Rosman.

With the advent of radio-controlled systems that relayed radio data to a controller, things really took off. The British were first to adopt the technology; they converted De Havilland Tiger Moth biplanes and named them the DH.82B — or Queen Bee, from which the term drones was derived.

It was only in the 1960s and the Vietnam War that UAVs were used for something other than destruction. Cameras were attached to them and they flew into enemy territory. In 1973, Israel created the Tadiran Mastiff, a system capable of seven-and-a-half hours of flight at 100km/h, relaying live televisual data to a ground controller.

A FEW things changed almost simultaneously, which catapulted UAV technology into the mainstream.

"What really helped was the brushless motor. These motors only started filtering down into the radio-controlled industry in the early to mid-2000s," says Rosman. At the same time, batteries changed to lithium polymer — the same type as found in your cellphone — which are able to dump huge amounts of power very quickly."

With open-source software, "we had a way for these systems to control themselves", he adds.

The UAV market has boomed since mass production was begun, resulting in a huge decline in prices. Rosman says UAV’s are going to become more widespread soon. "We are only starting to touch on their applications.

"The general rule is that UAVs are good for the three Ds: dull, dirty and dangerous jobs," says Rosman, whose company has been involved with monitoring rhinos in KwaZulu-Natal, and reducing poaching.

UAVs can also be used for terrain mapping — monitoring crop health and water concentration, or differences in pH in soils; they can be used to monitor missing power lines (a dangerous job); in some countries they are used for town planning; vehicle tracking; aerial photography for the property industry; security firms have been wanting to use UAVs for years; and, given the recent Ebola horror, their utility in sending vaccines to remote areas seems obvious.

All these uses are, at the moment, illegal in SA. The South African Civil Aviation Authority recently issued regulations prohibiting the use of drones within 50m of buildings or people. Rosman was on a committee that worked with the authority.

"Everyone likes to knock SA and think we’re far behind in all things," he says. "The truth is that we are one of the most progressive countries in the world in this regard.

"All countries are pushing for legislation, but only two others, besides SA, actually have something signed. The US is still bickering, and it has 50 states to contend with. Many countries have simply banned the things outright; they don’t understand them and so are effectively ignoring them.

"Are the rules that come into effect on July 1 perfect? No, far from it. But it is a good and necessary start. We have something to work with, and it is important to remember that."

SA’s authorities are even negotiating B-VLOS – beyond visual line of sight — the only other country acknowledging this in its (as yet unimplemented) legislation is the US.

Issues around operating licences, medical certificates and prohibitive licence costs will be bandied around vociferously, but from July 1, when things become legal albeit complicated, SA’s skies "will be a bun fight".

"The aviation industry is all about safety, and it is, inevitably and everywhere in the world, driven by incident or accident. Unfortunately, it often takes a loss of life or a serious incident before regulations are altered," Rosman says.

MANY smaller details of the legislation, such as what constitutes a "road" (which you are not allowed to cross); and the medical certificate to get a radio licence (which you need) being more stringent than the medical certificate you need to get a remotely piloted aircraft systems licence, still have to be fleshed out. But among the bigger "problems" with UAVs is that of payload and its deployment.

As the legislation stands, you cannot attach any payload to a UAV, which means that delivery of goods is some way off.

"This is, frankly, because they don’t want to deal with the issue," Rosman says. "But it is in the legislation, which means it will be and must be addressed at some stage."

And, as he drolly points out, every single clause in the legislation has a final, fine-print comment noting that it can be "circumvented" given the right circumstances.

Amazon did, famously, try to deliver goods with UAVs, but locals worked out their flight paths and took to shooting them down with shotguns. However, Rosman does envisage a time when companies will have their "own" airspace and will be flying and delivering goods within it.

There is also the very real payoffs of UAV usage and the industry becoming regulated and, thus, flourishing (if it can be taxed, it will be encouraged).

Figures released by the Association for Unmanned Vehicles International state that between now and 2025, $82.1bn will be spent on UAVs in the US alone. In the same period, 100,000 high-paying jobs will be developed, 70% of them in the first three years — and all of this in the civilian-commercial sector. If the US does not get its legislation in place quickly, the industry is set to lose $10bn.

"At the moment, China is the biggest commercial UAV manufacturer and the US the biggest UAV consumer in the world," says Rosman.

"But this is expected to shift to Africa, which will be the biggest commercial UAV operator and consumer within the next few years."

All UAV eyes are on Africa as they are relatively low-tech and inexpensive to make. "Already a lot of African countries are interested in getting their own legislation in place and SA will be the hub that drives this."

Africa is expected to be the first continent where UAVs fly cargo routes. Google has just bought about 15 UAV firms as they are looking to roll out Wi-Fi in Africa, for which they will need high-endurance UAVs moving around the continent." Watch this air space.