How Drones Are Changing the World
Drones aren’t just costly selfie cameras or novelties; they’re increasingly sophisticated machines with an ever-growing range of commercial applications.
But the burgeoning drone industry sees far more potential in these devices than merely entertaining tech-heads and infuriating labradors. Also, some drones look more like model airplanes than flying insects. Californian start-up Zipline uses plane-like drones to deliver life-saving blood for transfusions up to 80 km away in areas with poor infrastructure. Aerobotics, meanwhile, uses off-the-shelf drones combined with custom software to help farmers manage their crops and identify problems like disease.
Then there’s Duran de Villiers, a 34-year-old Knysna-based entrepreneur whose company, Alti, designs and manufactures drones that look like one with rotors and a fixed-wing model had offspring. De Villiers started Alti in 2009, when the drone industry was truly nascent. We spoke to him about the challenges of working in a sector that’s making up the rules as it goes along, and subject to incredibly rapid change.
De Villiers started out making multi-rotor drones, but these are extremely energy intensive. This translates into limited time in the air and range, in turn restricting the potential applications.
“I saw the potential for us to combine a multi-rotor design and a fixed-wing-aircraft design, allowing us to take off and land vertically, but then transition into forward fixed-wing flight, with the ability to stay airborne for up to 12 hours,” he explains.
The result was the Transition drone, a vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) drone that was the first to carry the Alti logo, and now a world leader in its product category.
Most of Alti’s drones are used for aerial mapping, surveying, security, patrolling and mining. But one of the other uses De Villiers is particularly proud of is in nature conservation. The possibilities are endless, from tracking endangered rhinos to maintaining reserve fences and patrolling borders. “We’re currently involved with a project where we use our aircraft to assist marine conservation with illegal fishing and shark finning in Indonesia,” he says.
As for the strangest applications, De Villiers says drones have been used “to sample whale “snot”’ by flying above the creatures as they exhale. Then there’s “delivering blood in very remote areas, dropping care packages, patrolling for illegal fishing, chasing birds off airport runways, you name it. What gets us really excited is when the technology can make a real difference for good.”
The future of drones in SA
One of the challenges South African drone entrepreneurs face is that the legislation around flying them commercially is very prohibitive. The Civil Aviation Authority has effectively copied and pasted the regulations from manned aviation, meaning if you want to make money drone flying, you need a pilot’s licence. De Villiers side-stepped this by manufacturing and exporting them instead, but says the regulations could use revision if the local sector is going to grow.
Another obstacle, he says, is supporting infrastructure. “[In future] I do see small deliveries being made, far more use of drones in conservation, and possibly even their use in transportation. But I think the infrastructure to operate and land these aircraft will need to come a long way. The technology is almost there, but the rest… not so much.”