Say high: Damian Mooney is a specialist in autonomous aircraft at Nelson Mandela University.Picture: SUPPLIED
Say high: Damian Mooney is a specialist in autonomous aircraft at Nelson Mandela University.Picture: SUPPLIED

Envisage a drone that is autonomously airborne in 15-20 seconds when an alarm is triggered. It steers itself to the scene and hovers above it, taking live, high-resolution footage for the police or security companies. Nelson Mandela University’s autonomous operations group is developing precisely this capability.

Specialising in drones, gliders and autonomous underwater vehicles, the group is exploring a range of capabilities while supporting research being conducted by the university’s scientists and engineers.

Surrounded by parts in a warehouse of the faculty of engineering, the built environment and information technology in Port Elizabeth, mechanical engineer Damian Mooney is hard at work. He is one of SA’s few specialists in remotely piloted aircraft systems and has been a commercial pilot for 20 years.

"Drones and gliders are rapidly gaining ground globally because of their diverse applications," he says. "Drones can be fitted with multispectral cameras and data-collecting capacity to take 3D images of buildings for restoration or renovation purposes; for marine science data capturing; for marine and land surveys; for wildlife surveys; or to monitor livestock."

He says crime-scene drones have been used globally for years in the military and by security companies. "Our innovation is that, instead of a person going to the hot spot and piloting the drone from there, it is completely automated from the time the alarm is triggered," Mooney explains.

"One of our master’s students in the group, Benjamin Nelson, is focusing his research on this and it should be ready by the end of this year."

The full potential of drones cannot be harnessed in SA, as the SA Civil Aviation Authority stipulates that an operating certificate is required, as well as certified drones and drone pilots. No commercial drone permits have been granted to any university in South Africa or any company in the Eastern Cape, and MAO, the university's Autonomous Operations Group, has applied to have Nelson Mandela University certified, but the process can take up to two years.

Mooney says drones are increasingly used for package deliveries to remote locations. Another master’s student, James Sewell, is working on a "FrankenDrone" – an autonomous aircraft that can deliver packages to the decks of moving ships at sea.

The FrankenDrone uses stereographic cameras to determine how fast the ship is travelling for an accurate "bomb drop". Despite its mix-and-match looks, it is practical, he says. "FrankenDrone, which spans 4m across and has both a fuel and electric motor, can be rapidly deployed, with a 5kg payload capacity." Mooney says.

The group is also working with marine scientist Prof Mike Roberts, who is leading a new research chair, the UK-SA bilateral chair in ocean science and marine food security, based at the university’s new ocean sciences campus.

"Automated subsea gliders, which are about 3.5m long and weigh a few hundred kilograms, are currently used to gather critical deep-sea ocean information, such as on ocean physics and upwelling, which directly underpins marine food security," Mooney says.

"Our goal is to come up with a lightweight alternative, with smaller sensors that we can get out to sea without ships.

"We are using this as an opportunity to innovate a giant leap in technology, in a similar way that limited hardwire telephone infrastructure led to African countries developing some of the world’s most advanced cellphone networks," he says.

A drone that is capable of remaining fixed on a task for days and relays information back to a home station will mean its sensors would not need to carry and power bulky satellite communication modules. They could have smaller Wi-Fi-style modules to transmit large data packages back to base.

Mooney says a machine like FrankenDrone can also operate as a relay station for the sea gliders, essentially acting as an airborne Wi-Fi relay tower system.

"Most gliders currently work on the iridium satellite system," he says. "When they go down to depths of 6,000m, for example, there is no communication. When the glider returns to the surface, it has an antenna and tries to make a link with the iridium satellite network, but it is not efficient as this satellite system was developed in the 1970s, so it is a bit like an old-fashioned dial-up modem.

"One of our students is working on a system that will allow FrankenDrone’s wings to be solar powered by day and battery operated by night so that it can serve as an airborne communication station for days at a time.

"Our ultimate goal at the Nelson Mandela University is to support our researchers and partners in the marine sector by developing and making available gliders and sensors that are suited to SA and African challenges."

Correction: September 28 2018

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article said no commercial permits had been granted. It has been amended to clarify that no universities have received permits.