Keeping the flag flying
Tech and regulatory hurdles stand in the way of wide-scale UAV implementation, but there’s a concerted push towards new-look South African skies.
The development of an ability to “see” other aircraft would represent a breakthrough in the more widespread acceptance of UAVs, says a senior executive at South Africa’s state-owned aerospace and defence tech company, Denel.
We asked the executive manager of UAVs at Denel Dynamics, Sello Ntsihlele, to outline the outlook for unmanned systems in this country.
Within Denel’s general set-up, how significant is UAV development?
It is growing, albeit from a low base. The use of UAVs in South Africa and indeed in other parts of the world has been slow, but now there is growing interest, both in local and international markets. It is an important business for Denel, an important area focus, a strategic capability.
How about export prospects?
Our focus has always been on the local market, but like all Denel products, we will be able to market them outside South Africa. Of course that is subject to us getting the necessary permits from the South African regulatory authorities to export these items. These are always controlled items.
What is the current legal framework?
The use of unmanned systems in South Africa is regulated because airspace is regulated. However, perhaps in the same way as the US, the regulations are not yet revised to suit the unmanned systems. The regulations currently used are applicable to manned systems, which poses a lot of difficulties… unmanned systems cannot fly in open airspace. You have to submit a flight plan.
Are local UAV flights test flights, or actual missions?
Actually, both. You will be aware of some of the deployments we have had in the Kruger National Park. Currently we are not flying ourselves, but the client would come to us and indicate when they want to fly. You can’t fly all the time; these are costly systems. This is a rugged military-type system used in other parts of the world, as used in conflict zones by some of our clients (such as) the United Nations). We would limit the amount of flights you have to do for non-military applications where cost is the issue.
What about applications of a more civilian-oriented type, for example law enforcement? Where are the big growth areas?
We have broadened the portfolio to include the civil market – border patrols, conservation applications, as well as mining applications. We are currently developing some small vehicles. We have one called Hungwe currently under development, which we believe will be suitable for civilian-type missions.
In addition to the ones already mentioned, you could add the surveillance of critical infrastructure. It could be roads; it could be railway lines, the electrical grid.
Are you able to make a convincing case for cost-effectiveness compared with manned aircraft?
We believe the case is there. It will be required of us to convince the customer in terms of the cost comparison. We also would like customers to compare apples with apples. People always think that the UAV is some kind of a model aircraft and at best it must be cheaper than a helicopter.
The reality is that, compared with a helicopter, the manned system will not do what an unmanned system will do in reconnaissance. Our experience has shown that it is far more difficult to use a manned system to perform routine maintenance.
Besides the advantage of loiter time, the machine can be programmed to fly autonomously. You can tell the machine where it should be, when, as opposed to speaking to somebody more about where that person is rather than what that payload is doing. So in this case you could have a lot of people involved, a whole team, with nobody actually needed on board – the thing is flying itself.
On the other hand, people tell us how much it costs to fly a helicopter to the Kruger Park and they expect an unmanned vehicle to do the same thing. In a helicopter you’ve got a rotor and a human being inside and that’s about it. This is a far more sophisticated system. I think the training is important and for people to understand the application of this system.
Do you need to be a pilot to fly a UAV?
It is not essential; it is possible to be trained. But, typically, the people we recommend or that customers tend to use are those with pilot experience. Then again, it is not always difficult to find a pilot type of personality within the military. In the non-military, that person would have to have certain qualifications and would have to be trained.
Who else is involved in UAV development in this country?
In a small country such as ours, at least technologically speaking, we tend to collaborate. So we work with the CSIR, of course, and with the universities and other institutions, mostly research-based, that are interested. We tend to be the ones that are more commercialised, if you like.
What progress can we expect in UAV development in the next five years or so?
We will be seeing more of the small UAVs. The legislation is going to improve. If you check what is happening in the US right now, the FAA have been mandated to look into the legalisation of these systems within open airspace, and the reality is that everybody shares the platform. We as a country are members of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and we share their best practices, but it always requires somebody with more pressing needs to say, “I need this resolved in my area.”
The other limiting factor in the application, of course, is the technological capabilities. There are certain technologies that would be helpful if they were developed to put these things in open airspace. An example is Sense and Avoid technology. That would make it easier for these things to be incorporated into open airspace. They would be able to “see” manned aircraft. The biggest developments will happen in that area.
Profile: Hungwe (Fish Eagle)
Line of sight range: 100 KM
Endurance: Up to 6 Hours
Service ceiling: 3 600 meters
Mission payload: Up to 5 kg
Operation: Piloted and autonomous
Profile: Seeker 400
Line of sight range: 250 km
Endurance: Up to 16 Hours
Service ceiling: 5 500 meters
Mission payload: Up to 100 kg
Armaments: 2 laser-guided missiles
Operation: Piloted and autonomous