This post originally appeared on http://www.iol.co.za/dailynews/lifestyle/drones-are-the-latest-buzz-in-south-africa-2023585.
[Editor’s Note: Drones are being used in the Kruger National Park to track rhino poachers.]
This technology is quickly being incorporated into our lifestyles and surroundings, writes Helen Grange
Back in the day they would’ve been identified as UFOs. Today they’re called drones, and they’ve been put to work, delivering beers via parachute to Oppikoppi festival, providing aerial views of the Oscar Pistorius media circus, gathering data from erupting volcanoes, monitoring dolphins and even helping to clean the ocean.
Most of us are more familiar with hobby drones, some of them fitted with cameras and operated remotely by the nosy neighbour spying on your mundane outdoor activities from the air. The real explosion of the drone trend, however, is in the world of information technology as techies discover new applications for them.
“There are new innovations in drones almost daily,” says Subash Devkaran, acting senior manager of the Airworthiness Department of the SA Civil Aviation Authority.
“They are already being used for everything from mining surveys and forestry conservation to powerline inspections and checking the moisture content in crops. They can fly as well as swim, and experiments are being conducted as to how they could be used to paint homes or ships, deliver packages or even take the dog for a walk, as the power source, robotics and automation in them become increasingly more sophisticated.”
Drones come in many shapes and sizes and can range from about R1 500 for a toy quadcopter to over R1 million, depending on the built-in technology. Filming and photography is one of the main applications of commercial drones sold, as it makes flying a camera as simple as using controls on a video game.
Cape Town film-maker Greg Copeland, of the company DroneEye, uses the revolutionary 1.3kg Phantom drone, with advanced camera and obstacle-avoidance technology, which delivers “awesome inspiring video footage that’s never been done before, through a superbly stabilised 4k video with a decent lens”. “It’s very exciting,” says Copeland. “I really hope I can continue to grow this inspiring new craft.”
The Phantom drone, selling for about R28 000, is also popular for other uses. “The Phantom 4 is the hottest topic in drone circles at the moment,” says Steven Howard from The Gadget Shop.
“Last year we had requests from farmers looking to aerially check their crops, and game lodge owners wanting to introduce aerial security-monitoring, as well as tech junkies with a taste for expensive hobbies.”
More expensive are the Trimble UX5 and the senseFly eBee – both priced over R400 000 – which are extremely advanced fixed-wing drones being used for mapping and surveying, and are slowly revolutionising the agricultural and mining industries.
In the Kruger National Park, ATEC-3D drones are being used to track rhino poachers using professional photogrammetry software to process aerial imagery and create 2D maps, 3D models and large photographic prints and videography. The ATEC-3D drone also provides accurate maps highlighting altering biological zonation for environmental risk analysis, biodiversity action planning and environmental monitoring. Not only that, it assists in crime scene investigations, traffic accidents and monitoring construction sites.
“Using a drone is cheaper and more environmentally and bureaucratically friendly than chartering an aeroplane or helicopter, and less labour intensive than conducting a ground survey,” says Michael Spratley, director of ATEC-3D SA. “They operate in wind, 100 percent cloud cover, light rain and take off and land on the roughest and most hazardous terrain.”
A drone that can “swim” is the WasteShark, developed by radio presenter Richard Hardiman, which monitors major spills and problem pollution areas in harbours. The WasteShark, equipped with sensors to feed back the water quality, weather and depth of the harbour basin, also skims the top 45cm of the water’s surface and can collect up to 500kg of waste at a time. “It is capable of operating 24 hours a day, and is the most effective solution to marine waste,” says Hardiman.
The more specialised the drone, the more skills you need to operate it. This has spawned an industry. “There are lots of people out there willing to hire out their equipment and skills. Depending on the job you require done, a drone pilot will charge anywhere between R3 000 and R25 000. For R3 000 you could get around 30 minutes of aerial filming and 20 to 40 aerial photographs. For R25 000 you could get in-depth game counting and mapping on a farm of around 500 hectares,” says Mario Demetrio from DroneSnap.
Drones are even being raced, in a new sport called FPV (first person view) racing, with the SA Drone Nationals having taken place at Klerksdorp’s PC Pelser Airport last month. “We race our miniquads which transmit live video back to us, flying them as though we are sitting inside them using either video goggles or a small screen,” says Alan Ball from Flying Robot. “We then race each other over a track made up of flags and small gates. Pod racing, Star Wars-style!”
What does the law say?
As the skies and seas fill with theselittle worker bees, the big questions that arise are: what about security, and the right to privacy? A drone recently struck an aircraft landing at London’s Heathrow Airport, according to reports.
The plane landed safely, but the incident sparked concerns that careless drone operators might eventually cause a catastrophe. Currently, all countries are looking at legislation separating drones from real aircraft to keep the skies safe, and South Africa is one of the first countries to regulate the use of commercial drones.
A host of regulations apply to commercial drones, and owners need a licence to fly them. Owners of hobby drones, meanwhile, must comply with rules that include: the drone may not fly within 10km of an airport, helipad or airstrip, and not within 50m of any person, property or public road.
“The operator may not be intoxicated and can only fly the drone in daylight and within their line of sight,” adds Devkaran. “The drone may not fly more than 120m above the ground, and below the height of the highest obstacle within a 300m radius.” Also, the drone may not carry any dangerous object or substance.
As to privacy, the standard privacy laws stipulated by the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPI) apply, protecting a person from “the unlawful processing of their personal information”. But given that any drone, regardless of its purpose, can collect and process personal information, there are moves afoot to amend this law where it applies to drones.
“The potential to invade private space is a real concern, not least because you could attach a gun and shoot somebody using a drone, or drop a bomb or chemicals,” says Devkaran.
“Facial-recognition technology can also be used on a drone, to find but also to harm a person, or a drone could potentially be used to smuggle guns or drugs into a prison.
“There are no significant concerns as yet, but we definitely need to keep amending the laws to keep up.”
For film-makers like Copeland, the commercial regulations are proving to be a minefield but there is little, if any, enforcement. “We are all still in a kind of twilight zone with the authorities,” he says. It is now supposedly illegal to fly over any national park, for example, which means that although there is not a single soul as far as the eye can see, it is technically illegal to fly.
“The privacy issue is not as big an issue as the noise factor in my view. A drone generally has a wide-angle lens on, so unless it is within 50m of you, you are a speck in the picture.
“But most drones sound like a swarm of bees or mosquitoes even when quite far away.”
“If they were silent they would be fairly inconsequential, but they sound like a Weed Eater,” says Copeland.