Adam Rosman wanted to build rockets like Elon Musk. Instead he makes drones that can handle Africa’s harsh conditions.
As a boy, there was never any doubt what Adam Rosman would do when he was older.
“Aviation fascinated me. My friends and I used to build model rockets and fly them at the school fields. I then decided I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer,” he says.
Rosman studied aeronautical engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. “When I finished, I always wanted to do rocketry, Elon Musk type of stuff.”
He worked at a South African rocket design firm but the company went under. “I think it was just the wrong time, they couldn’t get money,” says Rosman.
Back then may have been the wrong time to build rockets, but Rosman seemed to have perfect timing when he started Aerial Monitoring Solutions (AMS) in 2013. The company designs custom drones for the commercial market.
“These aren’t for hobbyists to play around with on the weekend,” he says.
AMS has two drone systems at the moment. One is a large, 2.5-meter, fixed-wing system called the Eagle Owl; the other is a small multicopter system, the Bumble Bee.
As they are customizable, Rosman’s drones have many uses. Farmers use them to inspect the health of their crops and to monitor their fences for security reasons. Game farms use them for fence monitoring, animal counting and anti-poaching. Land surveyors use them to get topographical maps while mining companies use them for ore vein exploration.
“My entire drive is to have something customizable because there’s no one-system-fits-all [solution]. We’ve made a platform that can carry payload, can carry a range of cameras, can do game counting, [and] guys are using it for agriculture.”
There are many drone technology companies emerging in South Africa but Rosman says AMS differs in that it is one of the few that develops hardware, plus it is affordable.
The basic fixed-wing system, with the launch rail, ground control station, antennas, basic day-time camera, and a laptop, will cost about R200,000 ($17,000).
“We found you could purchase systems from overseas that were high precision, but they were hundreds and thousands of US dollars. I felt like they were excluding Africa, or other poorer continents like South America, who can’t afford those systems except if you’re a government or a major company. Why shouldn’t a guy who has a farm and wants to be able to check his fences be able to buy a drone?” he says.
The feature, however, that Rosman takes the most pride in is the robustness of his drones.
“From the start, we wanted something that is by Africa, for Africa. It’s got to be able to go into harsh terrain and operate. It’s got to be able to handle the rough handling – like be thrown into the back of a [pick-up truck], driven around on dirt roads, taken out, put together and expected to fly. Unfortunately, I’ve seen some of the demos where the high-end guys come from Europe or America and go to the Kruger National Park, turn on the system but because of the heat it can’t operate,” he says.
“We wanted to give something that could handle anything. If it ends up in a little village covered in dust, and gets dust storms blowing through it every day, it will still be able to operate there or if it’s flying above Kilimanjaro covered in snow.”
Rosman has reason to be proud. He started AMS with nothing but his parents’ garage and a few angel investors.
“I took over my parents’ garage; I kicked them out and said ‘I’m going to work in here’. I brought in equipment and started designing the aircraft in there during the night.”
After a few years, those designs started attracting shareholders.
“They’ve been amazingly supportive. In 2016, they came and saw potential and I’m lucky to have them.”
His parents’ support was just as valuable, even when he was young.
“When I was younger I used to build model aircraft with my dad and then we went on and got remote-controlled gliders and remote-controlled cars. I would build them and play with them for about a week. The next week I would take the entire thing apart because I wanted to see how it worked and then try and put it back together again. To this day, at my folks’ house there are still lots of bits and pieces of aircraft and toys.”
Rosman says drones can kickstart South Africa’s dwindling aviation industry.
“A lot of jobs can be created in the drone space, from operators to maintenance to regulators. It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. It’s estimated that from the time the industry started, government regulations have hindered 25,000 jobs from being created.”
As the Deputy Chairperson of the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of South Africa (CUAASA), Rosman understands the industry better than most.
“The main hindrance to the entire drone industry is government regulations. They implemented drone regulations in June 2015 and they brought in some very good regulations, they still are very good. The problem is the implementation procedure has taken too long,” he says.
“Operation certificates are supposed to have a 30- to 90-day turnaround time. Realistically, it’s about a two-year turnaround time.”
A CUAASA study revealed that 99% of the drone industry in South Africa is operating illegally because of the time and cost involved in government regulations.
“Before you start making money, to operate legally, you’ve got to have five full-time safety officers, you have to have purchased your drones, and drone technology at the moment becomes obsolete within nine months, but only in possibly two years’ time can you operate.”
AMS also plans to do payload delivery, but needs to wait for the Civil Aviation Authority to legalize it. Another avenue Rosman is looking at is vehicle tracking.
“Why have helicopters in the air? Our systems fly on autopilot, so if you give it the GPS co-ordinates, it’ll go there… If the drone crashes, you only lose some money.”
With the Eagle Owl and Bumble Bee, money is unlikely to be a problem for Rosman.
– By Gareth Cotterell