The number of applications for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs/unmanned aerial systems (UASes) in Africa was increasing rapidly, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) principal aeronautical engineer John Monk told the aviation session of the recent Southern African Transport Conference, in Pretoria. (A UAV is the actual unmanned aircraft, while a UAS is that aircraft plus datalink plus ground control station plus – in some cases – UAV launch and retrieval systems. They are popularly called drones.) “UAS originally had three missions – [the] dull, dirty, and dangerous,” he noted. Today, they had very many more roles.
An important UAS application in Africa is medical sample, medication and blood transport. A US company, Zipline, was now doing this routinely, on a nationwide basis, in Rwanda. This was providing rapid support for clinics in rural areas. The service is now being expanded to Tanzania. A Dutch company, Dr.One, is developing a similar system for use in Malawi. These programmes are largely funded by international donors, both private and public, national and multinational. Dr.One, for example, receives funding from the United Nations, the Dutch government and, strikingly, the Ghanaian government.
Ironically, the use of UAVs to transport medical samples had been proven in South Africa, Monk highlighted. This had been done in trials by the University of the Witwatersrand’s Professor Barry Mendelow in 2008. But South African Civil Aviation Authority regulations at that time did not allow this to be done on a regular basis – only on an experimental basis.
But UAVs were being put to many other uses in Africa today, Monk pointed out. In the Sudan, they were being used to sow acacia tree seeds to reduce desertification. In Botswana, commercially available quadcopters were employed to drive elephants away from villagers’ crops. In Nigeria, UAVs were being used to carry out aerial surveys of archaeological sites. Not least, in Ethiopia, UAVs were used to release sterilised male tsetse flies, which then mated with females, which consequently did not produce any offspring. This was an environmentally friendly way of reducing the numbers of these insects, which transmit sleeping sickness and other diseases.
South Africa now had regulations that allowed regular use of UAVs – Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Regulations. But, he observed, these were seen as being onerous, and making it slow and expensive to qualify to operate UAVs. As a result, there were currently only 26 licensed UAV operators in South Africa. Consequently, South Africa was falling behind other countries in making use of UAVs. These included other African countries, a significant number of which (especially in Southern Africa) now also had UAV regulations.
At the CSIR, aeronautics fell under Defence, Peace, Safety and Security (DPSS). The council had been involved in UAV research and development for many years, he stressed. “We have designed 15 to 16 airframes over the years.” These included the Indiza, the Sekwa and the Modular research UAV. Four Modular UAVs were built and, in addition to those operated by the CSIR itself, examples were supplied to Stellenbosch
University and the University of Johannesburg. In addition, the CSIR developed a UAV flight simulator. Other competence areas of CSIR DPSS have also developed UAV systems and payloads.
Today, CSIR Aeronautics’ activities include the design of new and/or novel UAV airframes and the analysis and characterisation of existing UAVs. Its current projects include the Long Endurance Modular UAV, of which there were two versions.
This research is supported by the aeronautical facilities at the CSIR. These include several wind tunnels, covering a speed range of Mach 0.2 to Mach 4.3. (The Mach number is the speed of sound in the atmosphere, which, in kilometre per hour terms, varies with height.)
The science council can also provide aeronautical modelling and simulation capabilities, allowing computer modelling of an aircraft and its flight characteristics long before an actual flight.