Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or as they are more commonly known drones, are the latest technology boom that is growing exponentially across the globe and African skies are seeing an increasing number of them too.
What are drones? And how do they work? Briefly, they are aircraft without a human pilot flying inside. They are flown either by operators sitting in control rooms hundreds, or even thousands of kilometers away, using satellite feeds or radio signals, or increasingly, many drones are flown entirely by computer.
Most people have a vague idea that the Americans have been flying strange unmanned vehicles, called Predators and Reapers over the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan to spy on and often kill suspected Taliban or other militants. What is startling is the growth of drones in the military. A decade ago, according to a recent article in Time Magazine, there were only 50 drones in the Pentagon fleet, now there are some 7,500 and more than a third of the US Air Force fleet is unmanned.
The military use of drones, particularly by the States, is troubling but it is a reality that is not going away. And one which has changed the nature of warfare. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that there have been some 360 drone strikes in Pakistan, killing up to 3,500 people—over 300 of the strikes have been ordered by the Obama administration—while there have been multiple strikes in Yemen and Somalia. The US confirmed, as far back as 2011, that it had been operating Reaper drones alongside Ethiopian forces battling al-Shabaab militias in Somalia. They also have secret drone bases in the Horn of Africa, the Seychelles and Burkina Faso. The government of Niger recently gave the US the green light to operate surveillance drones to help monitor the movement of extremist groups in the Sahara and Sahel. The US and France are certainly sharing intelligence over ongoing events in Mali, although there are no confirmed reports of drone strikes as of going to print.
The largest manufacturer of drones in Africa is Denel Dynamics based outside Pretoria, South Africa. They have been making drones and other Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) since the 1980s. They make four different drones aimed at both the commercial and military markets.
Their flagship product is the Seeker 400; it is the only long range tactical UAV made on the continent. It is an upgrade on the successful Seeker II, which was exported to two other countries, neither of which can be disclosed, but Denel Dynamics has “Clients in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, South America, especially Brazil. We are not considering entering the market in North America but in Europe there might be some possibilities,” says deputy CEO of Denel Dynamics, Tsepo Monaheng.The Seeker 400 is what Monaheng describes as an entry-level long range UAV. In the industry, it is known as a ‘MALE’ or Medium Altitude Long Endurance drone. It can remain airborne for 16 hours and carries two payloads so that it can operate different cameras on the same flight, say, a high-resolution optical camera and an infrared one. It has a range of 250 kilometers and relies on line-of-sight communications. It has the potential to be upgraded for satellite links but at this stage, “We cannot hand control of the communications to a third party”.
The Seeker 400 is also designed to carry an armed payload if necessary. “None of our drones carry weapons at the moment but the system can be customized for different client requirements,” he says.
So, South Africa is a potential player in the game of international drone warfare.
“We can sell anywhere that is morally okay. Anywhere our country is okay with,” says Monaheng.
At the moment only the States, United Kingdom and Israel are known to have used armed drones. But as the pressure builds on South Africa to become more involved in continental peace-keeping missions, the questions of who to sell drones to will become a foreign policy dilemma that could have political ramifications. South Africa will, in the near future, have to contend with the growing use of drones by other militaries, especially by Western forces, on the continent and decide what the country’s response to this will be.
Johan Potgieter of the Institute for Security Studies explains that in the recent conflict in the DRC, after the M23 rebels had taken control of parts of the east, there was renewed interest in the United Nation’s (UN) use of at least three drones to get real-time information for their peacekeeping forces.
“The US had trained the Ugandan forces in the utilization of drones because the UN had agreed to it but then the Rwandans complained.”
What most vexed the Rwandans was their national sovereignty being violated by drones—an issue for which, at this stage, international law has few, if any, precedents or guidelines.
“Africa shall not become a laboratory for intelligence devices from overseas,” says Olivier Nduhungirehe, Rwanda’s deputy UN ambassador.
Where South Africa, as the largest drone manufacturer and exporter on the continent, might place itself on this question is anybody’s guess at this stage.
“Africa is very sensitive about other people interfering in their airspace—as they’ve often got something to hide,” says Potgieter.
The questions raised on the matter in international politics are only going to proliferate, and the military drones themselves are going to get more and more sophisticated. In recent years, however, there has been a rapidly growing parallel development of simpler and far less expensive drones for civilian use.
“There has been an evolution in thinking about UAV technology. They can be used to courier information, blood samples, data of all kinds. They used them at Fukushima to monitor radiation levels. You can use them wherever you don’t want humans to be involved,” says Monaheng.
With this in mind, Denel Dynamics has developed a much smaller drone called the Hungwe, which is small enough to be transported in a single commercial 4×4 vehicle.
“The design concept is for it to be used in civilian airspace. The challenge is to work with the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority).”
Civilian drone technology, both local and international, is developing so fast that it is now prompting a rapid review of South Africa’s aviation laws to integrate drones for civilian use into our air space, as currently there are no regulations for the use of UAVs outside of restricted military airspace.
According to Sam Twala, certification engineer for CAA: ‘This is not a unique problem to South Africa, the whole world is still searching for a working solution. The UAV interim policy of 2009 is under review and we hope to have something out by the end of this year. But we need to find a solution that not only suits the South African market but harmonizes with the international market”.
There is huge economic potential for both military and civilian drones.
“UAVs are a successful business for us. Our turnover is about R200 million ($22.5 million) and we employ about 90 people. But the industry is growing and we want a big chunk of that and we expect to grow 10% year-on-year.”
At the moment the potential for making money in the civilian drone business is still at a sort of Klondike stage; everyone knows that there is gold out there but no one knows exactly where it is or how to get hold of it.
A 2012 market study by defense consultants TEAL group predicts that global UAV spending will almost double in the next decade from $6.6 billion to $11.4 billion bringing it up to $89 billion over the decade. But really, who knows? It could be even bigger if certain conditions are met: appropriate legislation, enough air space being made available and the technology being safe enough to operate successfully.
The second biggest players in the African market, Advanced Technologies and Engineering (ATE), are currently undergoing cash flow problems but they have over 15 years of experience in the industry and are confident that a turnaround is near.
“The applications for non-passenger UAVs are unlimited. The only restriction is legislation. The CAA is key but so is ICASA [Independent Communications Authority of South Africa]—they have to make bandwidth available to the industry. We need regulation urgently for different classes and types of UAVs. We can create an airspace where only UAVs operate. There are two types of aircraft: unpressurized planes fly beneath 12,000 feet, most pressurized craft fly over 28,000 feet, so there is a whole band of airspace that UAVs could operate in,” says Jan Vermeulen, programs manager at ATE.
Their main UAV products are the Vulture Tactical UAS used to assist long-range artillery with finding targets and correcting both aim and range. The mobile Vulture is launched by catapult off the back of a truck, while the Sentinel-LE UAS uses a similar flight body but takes off and lands on a runway.
“We don’t make armed UAVs. Definitely not,” Vermeulen points out.
Like Denel Dynamics, they won’t reveal the identity of their clients but Africa, the Middle East and Asia are on the list.
Perhaps their most innovative project is one that is stalled for the moment as the company’s financial position is being considered. Using a tiny UAS called a KIWIT weighing less than 4 kilograms, they developed a system in conjunction with the National Health Laboratory Service. The KIWIT, guided by a PC, would fly from a small rural clinic, carrying a blood sample to a laboratory or hospital with laboratory services. The KIWIT is then programed to drop the sample by parachute and return to the clinic for another load.
“We got a 97 out of 100 success rate but the program is now stalled because of [air space] regulations,” says Vermeulen.
When asked about the future of the company Vermeulen is positive.
“The last two years our turnover was on average R100 million ($11.26 million) a year but we had one big overseas contract who didn’t pay and our cash flow was badly affected. Everything depends on the new owners but we have the potential to do amazing things.”
It’s uncertain exactly how big the UAV manufacturing sector is in South Africa but there are successful smaller companies like Tellumat, which specialize in avionics for UAVs and exhibited at last year’s African Aerospace and Defense show in South Africa.
S-Plane Automation is a Cape Town-based UAV manufacturer, which builds the Swift and Nightingale drones.
“They are both still in development phase. The Swift is a tactical class surveillance UAV, not designed for armaments, that can fly at 18,000 feet. The Nightingale is a much smaller unit, with a wingspan of only 1.5 meters,” says technical director Iain Peddle.
The company’s website explains that they were designed, like ATE’s KIWIT, to transport blood samples.
S-Plane is still working on its UAVs.
“At the moment they are not mature products. We prefer, for the time being, not to compete with the Denels. We are staying in the sub-system market, flight computers, simulators, power managements systems.”
The Swift and Nightingale are elegant machines that are potentially extremely versatile. Peddle won’t go on the record about what their turnover is.
“It’s a sensitive industry but let’s say we’re a growing player. We’ve gone from 6 or 7 engineers to about 20 now.”
Small companies, such as S-Plane, are part of an exploding international market. A 2012 report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) on drone proliferation states that the number of countries possessing drones has risen to 76, with over 50 countries developing more than 900 UAV systems.
The South African UAV market faces stiff competition. Potgieter points out that, “Seeker is not necessarily cheap. In an open market it will be relatively easy to find a tested and proven UAV that is much more competitive”.
“China and Israel are our biggest competitors. They put together a whole package where they give a country UAVs and build an airport in exchange for, say, coal. We still operate in a traditional business way, where we have to receive money for our product,” says Monaheng.
Perhaps the most immediately pressing and exciting development for civilian and tactical unarmed UAVs in Africa, is their potential for combatting rhino poaching. Damien Mander, an Australian ex-Special Forces soldier and Iraq veteran, who founded the International Anti-Poaching Foundation has pioneered the use of small drones in tracking elephant poachers in Niassa province, Mozambique. He is developing a scheme to track poachers and watch over rhinos in the Hoedspruit area of Limpopo Province in South Africa.
“There are heaps of drones on the market that have a 20-40 kilometer capability. The drones that conservationists need cost $250,000. The components that go into them cost $100,000 tops. The rest of the price is intellectual property. We don’t have that kind of money so we are developing a UAV that is sold for the cost of its parts,” he says.
Mander has assembled an experienced team that is building the UAVs in Australia.
“You can find the parts on diydrones.com, from all over the place. We want to stay comfortably behind the technology curve. We want them to be affordable, easy to operate in rough remote areas and easy to repair.”
He aims to get five airframes to South Africa by September and pending CAA approval, hopes they will be used against poachers soon.
The unparalleled surveillance capabilities of drones mean that very soon they will become standard equipment for law enforcement. Clearly, they can be used to track criminals, watch borders, guard key installations, help protect VIPs among a number of other uses.
They take us into a 21st century world of Big Brother legal issues. What does their use mean for privacy and entrapment issues? CAA concerns aside, lawyers, legislators and courts are going to have to rewrite a number of laws within the ambit of this new and growing technology. In the very near future, at, say for example, the massacre of miners in Marikana, there will be police drones recording crowd movements; anticipating where they might move next; pinpointing individuals with GPS and face recognition software. Some of them will probably be armed with tear gas or, perhaps, even missiles. At the same time, the mine owners will have their own drones flying overhead, as will the unions and this is not to mention that all the major news companies will most likely have drones too. There will be so many competing streams of information that can be cross-referenced that the whole nature of the investigation will be changed.
The psychological, social and economic effects of this are difficult to predict. Increasingly, drones will become an indispensable tool of the media. We will expect to watch events across the world in real-time video fed from drones overhead edited in with pictures from cameras and cellphones from journalists and even members of the public on the ground as they are happening. Live broadcasts have been around for decades but drone technology takes it to a new level. Journalists will be able to fly drones over police cordons, prison walls, national borders to be able to bring the events to their audience. Laws might make certain areas or events out of bounds to drones but there will be equally compelling arguments in favor of freedom of expression and the public’s right to know. In purely practical terms, to prevent drones being used, the police might have to shoot them out of the sky or interrupt their flight control signals, which will potentially bring them crashing down. We’ve hardly even begun to imagine what the widespread availability and use of drones will mean for the future.
The unstoppable morphing of drones from the military to civilian worlds and the inevitable growth in their availability and use is not all good news. As Vermeulen points out, “Any guy can buy the components and, with a little bit of technical knowledge, slap them together and then you have a drone.”
The web is filled with sites such as the DroneZone.co.za; www.SMac.co.za (SMart Automotive Components) or even Amazon and Kalahari where you can buy small drones like the Parrot that is operated off an iPhone. The smallest drones available are called MAVs (Micro Air Vehicles) and their designs are inspired by bird and insect wings. In the last month, the British military announced that it was providing its forces in Afghanistan with a 16g Norwegian-designed Black Hornet Nano drone, the size of a weaver bird.
Criminals and killers can all buy these drones and the components to upgrade them for more ominous uses. A recent piece in the Spectator described how in the near future the software will exist for drones to fly autonomously and to make their own ‘kill’ decision based entirely on computer algorithms with no element of human choice involved.
Drones are going to change everything. Soon. Society will have to struggle constantly with their dark, and potentially deadly, aspects but they also represent the next frontier for entrepreneurs. Their potential is enormous. They can be used to courier parcels, monitor flocks of sheep, check the fences on game farms, film aerial shots for movies, find natural disaster victims, monitor schools of fish in the oceans and the illegal trawlers that go after them, survey pirates, rescue yachtsmen in distress, provide live traffic updates, check the quality of soils on wine estates. Their uses are endless.
As Twala says: “UAVs are the future. In the next five years, UAVs will change our lives as much as cellphones did. The list is limited only by one’s imagination”.
Download issues of Forbes Africa
- Single Digital Issue: James Mwangi Cover - Forbes Africa Aug/Sep2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa June/July 2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa April 2020 - 30 Under 30 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa March 2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa February 2020 R50.00