19/09/2022

The Nelson Mandela University became the first university in South Africa to legally operate drones. This achievement brought it a step closer to realising its vision of offering a diverse range of life-changing educational experiences for a better world.

The first university to legally operate drones for a better world.

The Nelson Mandela University became the first university in South Africa to legally operate drones. This achievement brought it a step closer to realising its vision of offering a diverse range of life-changing educational experiences for a better world.

 

The establishment of our Drone unit allows the School of Engineering to provide both under- and post-graduate students the opportunity to gain specialised skills in a technical environment that supports not only the South African community, but also the niche market of drone operations. We can also support other parts of the University, from Ocean Sciences to Technical Support Services. 

 

The strategic importance of having a bird’s eye view

“This breakthrough is of strategic importance to the University. We now have the ability to collect data in the form of aerial imagery at a much higher rate than ever before. This enables us to understand and manage large scale projects that are linked to the community, much faster. Fisheries, illegal poaching, whale populations, forestry and fire control are a few examples of what will benefit from having a bird’s eye view,” said Karl du Preez, Principal Lecturer and Director of the University’s Advanced Mechatronic Technology Centre (AMTC).

The significance of this achievement does not only impact the University, its stakeholders, and the South African community, but also the world.

  • University researchers and staff, within our six campuses and associated faculties, will have access to professional drones and crew, without the related expenses. The list of University clients needing drone access is growing daily. Ocean Sciences needs assistance with the collection of mucus samples from the spray of whales, Zoology with measuring the greenhouse effects associated with different grazing foliage, Architecture with land surveying of historic sites that are not accessible by road and Maintenance with high quality images of roof tops and areas difficult to reach for maintenance. 
  • The AMTC will benefit with a new discipline in its teaching and research portfolio. It has already developed two short courses to train drone technicians to prepare for the possible shortage of qualified technicians as the drone industry grows in South Africa. Internationally the AMTC has collaborated with industry leaders to offer online courses too.
  • Employment - The corporate nature of the University’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) Operating Certificate (ROC) means that we will not compete with or sell our services to industry. By collecting research data and partnering with commercial groups we aim to generate employment opportunities that were not thought of before. 
  • Economic growth - Through collaboration with industry we will help to grow drone technology in South Africa, contributing to economic growth. 
  • Drone production and maintenance - The development of drones within the University is aimed at the commercial sector. We can collaborate with industry on an IP sharing basis to grow the drone production and maintenance sector of industry, which is currently not well-represented in South Africa. We are also involved in the design, manufacturing and testing of drones that are specific to South African farming and security needs. 
  • Design concepts - With patents already in place, the University is on the verge of being able to offer the world design concepts for new heavy-lift drones that could be used in long range payload delivery scenarios such as disaster management and famine relief. 
  • Drone products - Our focus on real world drone solutions means that we are able to offer products that can be commercially produced and used in world relevant research and support. 

“The ROC allows us to operate within all South African airspace, including controlled airspace or airports. This means that the flights will occur where they are needed to support researchers and students. The central hub of deployment will be at the University’s North Campus with AMTC being the maintenance centre.”

 

 

A rigorous application process

Since June 2015 all flights conducted by universities, industry and individuals became illegal for the purpose of anything but sport flying. Overnight all drone activity at the University had to stop until an ROC was in place. Karl and his team followed a rigorous 3-year application process with rigid guidelines to secure an ROC from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA). 

“The SACAA governs commercial and corporate RPAS operations in much the same way as the operations of a large airline. Intensive paperwork and training are ongoing throughout the 3-year process with associated costs for the application, equipment, and legal assistance. Four dedicated post holders are required to continuously drive and monitor the process. A major challenge is to employ adequately skilled technicians and aviation engineers at universities. The AMTC is fortunate to have two commercially licenced pilots – Prof. Russel Phillips and Damian Mooney, who played a vital role in the acquisition of the ROC.”

The University’s investment was approximately R400 000 plus the sporadic time of four people over three years. The AMTC invested more than R200 000 in the acquisition of off-the-shelf rotary drones and in excess of R1 million in the development of prototype autonomous vehicles. 

 

The diverse use of drones

Drones are used to significantly impact people’s lives worldwide. 

  • Search and rescue drones use thermal cameras to operate at night and in thick cloud and smoke. 
  • Drones are used to monitor security sites remotely for industry, and on farms.
  • They are used for package delivery, ranging from Amazon goods to vital blood and medical supplies to remote villages (Zipline). The South African Blood Bank recently obtained their ROC. 
  • During military operations drones give troops an aerial view of the battlefield.
  • In disaster management drones can penetrate thick smoke, fly through open windows into buildings and use thermal cameras to pinpoint hot spots for firefighting teams. 
  • Locally the University is able to go out into the community to solve problems via drone technology, such as assistance with crime prevention in the security industry, environmental protection including wildlife tracking and GPS surveys GPS, and the enhancement of agricultural- and maintenance practices. 

 

 

What is a drone?

“Drone” is a broad term which military initially used to describe a flying target for artillery practice. Controlling authorities recently renamed them “RPAS” (Remotely Piloted aircraft System) when not used for sport flying. There are different types of drones:

  • The simplest version is a camera-based drone able to obtain high resolution photos and conduct detailed mapping and surveying. 
  • Hovering style (multirotor) drones can carry thermal cameras for security operations and various sensor payloads for recording or capturing samples of air, water or even hazardous materials. 
  • Fixed wing (aeroplane) drones have the ability to carry payloads for longer periods and flight distances. 

 

A hovering drone can remain airborne for approximately 20 minutes, whereas a fixed wing drone can remain airborne for potentially hours at a time, depending on its fuel/battery/payload ration. 

 

“Drones give human beings the power of accessing previously inaccessible places – unlocking a whole new world.”

 

 

The team behind the drones

The drones will be managed by the four post holders of the University’s RPAS Operating Certificate.

  • Karl du Preez (CEO, AMTC)
  • Damian Mooney (Person Responsible for Flight Operations, Person Responsible for Aircraft, RPAS Pilot, RPAS Technician)
  • Jan De Jongh (Security Manager)
  • Mervin Knoesen (Quality Manager, Air Safety Officer)  

A major partner in achieving accreditation was the merSETA, who provided the necessary funding.

 

 

The structure behind the team’s success

The AMTC applied for the ROC on behalf of the University. The AMTC is an Engagement unit in the School of Engineering, involved in projects from high schools, TVET Colleges, Woman in Engineering (Wela) to industry related research projects. It embarked on the establishment of a Drone unit in collaboration with the merSETA. This unit is involved in drone related research. To fly legally, the unit had to secure funding to reach specific goals. These goals included the appointment of specialised human resources and the establishment of the necessary physical resources to accomplish the set goals. 

 

The MandelaUni Autonomous Group was established within the AMTC, to support the research. The Group consists of the four post holders and Prof. Russell Phillips. The merSETA provided funding to initiate the activities. Karl du Preez, as Director of the AMTC, motivated the project with merSETA to secure funding. 

 

The application of the ROC has very rigid guidelines under which the accreditation must function. This includes licenced drone pilots, safety-, and security quality assurance managers - all under the leadership of an entity manager (CEO). The accreditation will allow the university to operate drones for corporate operations only, in a very controlled environment. The certification does not allow the university to operate drone flying on an ad-hoc basis.

 

Contact information
Mr Karl du Preez
Principal Lecturer
Tel: 27 41 504 3644
karl.dupreez@mandela.ac.za