The Dawn of the Drone

Galetti Knight Frank June 1, 2017

Drones in the sky, drones in the sea, drones on land: this is the future of human augmentation.

When filmmaker George Lucas popularised droids — worker robots designed to tend to humanity’s every need — in the 1977 movie “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope,” he seemed like a sci-fi visionary. But fast-forward nearly 40 years, and the idea of flying surveillance cameras, robotic companions and even unmanned aircraft carrying supplies around the planet is swiftly becoming mainstream.

The first drone delivery in the United States took place the summer of 2015, marking an important milestone in the development of the new technology. But even though Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made headlines in 2013 when he unveiled the company’s vision for using delivery drones, the online retail giant was not the one to carry out the first-ever delivery flight.

Instead, Australian startup Flirtey, in partnership with Virginia Tech and NASA, used a drone to carry 10 pounds (4.5 kilogrammes) of medical supplies from an airfield in Virginia to a remote clinic about a mile away over three 3-minute flights. While the demonstration was a landmark moment for drone technology and policy, it was a far cry from Amazon’s vision of a fleet of drones delivering online purchases to customers’ doorsteps within 30 minutes.

Still, Amazon is committed to making its drone delivery program, dubbed Prime Air, a reality. In April, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted the company permission to begin testing its drones. But Amazon isn’t the only tech giant doubling down on drone technology.

In July, Facebook revealed that it had completed a full-size version of its solar-powered Aquila drone, which is now ready for testing in the United Kingdom. The huge robotic flier, which has the same wingspan as a Boeing 737 jetliner, is designed to circle around in the stratosphere (the layer of Earth’s atmosphere located between 6 and 30 miles, or 10 to 48 kilometers, above the planet’s surface)and use lasers to beam Internet access to the most remote corners of the world.

A similar drone developed by Google crashed during a test run in New Mexico in May, but the company is also developing a delivery service, known as Project Wing, to compete with Amazon’s Prime Air.

While these developments grab headlines, they tend to overshadow the real progress being made in the drone industry, experts say. Many companies are leveraging drones’ ability to capture high-resolution imagery using tech ranging from regular cameras to laser scanners, leading the FAA to predict that drones will spawn a $90 billion industry within a decade.

Drones could help farmers prioritise where to apply fertiliser. They also could help energy companies monitor their infrastructure. Drones could even enable emergency response teams to quickly map the extent of damage after natural disasters.

“There’s been even more explosive growth than I expected,” said Dan Kara, practice director for robotics at the technology consulting firm ABI Research in Oyster Bay, New York. And because the technology is still in its infancy, Kara said, the potential is limitless. “There will be applications that will just come over the wall,” he told Live Science. “If you think of these things as basically just airborne mobile sensors, all kinds of uses open up.”

So how is South Africa progressing with regards to utilising drones? SouthAfrica has 368 registered drone pilots, with this number set to grow.

The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) has revealed that over the course of a 12-month period the number of drones registered and drone licenses issued has increased dramatically.

The SACAA notes that the number of drones registered with the South African Aircraft Register grew from 216 for the period ending January 2016, to 465 for the period ending January 2017. That’s a 115% increase, for thoses keeping scores.

Folks are also keen to stay within the limits of the law. In the period ending January 2016 only 33 remote pilot’s licenses were issued. A year later CAA reports that as many as 368 licenses were issued during the period ending January 2017.

“The substantial increase in the number of registered RPAS [remotely piloted aircraft systems] and associated licences in the country is not a surprise at all,” SACAA executive, Simon Segwabe said.

“In fact, the increase has always been envisaged as the rapid advancement of this technology and its potential use in commercial and other activities make RPAS appealing to many prospective operators.”

 But the SACAA says that while many are doing things legally there are much more that are skirting the rule of law.

“It is estimated that for every registered and licensed remotely piloted aircraft taking to the skies, there are two or three more doing so illegally,” says Segwabe. The authority also notes that there has been an increase in the number of reports involving drones flying into private property.

“We urge RPAS owners and operators to respect the privacy of others,” the SACAA exec said.

Segwabe says that many folks with a love for drones and the business opportunities they present may not be that well acquainted with the laws that surround them. While drones are smaller than say an A380, a collision involving a drone and another aircraft could be disastrous.

Take a look at this amazing location drone video - 

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Galetti Knight Frank

Marketing Manager at Galetti Knight Frank

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