Helicopter-like rotor-blade drones have fixed wings that allow them to fly silently, taking off and landing vertically. Picture: EHANG
Helicopter-like rotor-blade drones have fixed wings that allow them to fly silently, taking off and landing vertically. Picture: EHANG

Drone technology is advancing so rapidly that airspace regulatory authorities are battling to catch up. The next big thing is "urban air mobility" - a development that combines driverless car, taxi app and drone technologies to deliver a pilotless, flying taxi you can hail by smartphone.

At the forefront of facing those challenges is Johannesburg's Jana Rosenmann, head of unmanned aerial systems at Airbus Defence and Space, a new division of Airbus launched in Dallas, Texas, last month. Its headquarters are set to be in Atlanta, Georgia, when it goes operational next year.

Speaking to Business Times at Airbus in Toulouse, France, Rosenmann said that although urban air mobility was a little further down the track it still faced the challenge "to convince people to get into an unmanned air vehicle and fly somewhere".

Despite this challenge, Airbus was working on a three-tiered, unmanned aerial vehicle remote-sensing project that would integrate conventional commercial drones, high-altitude surveillance drones and satellites. These would produce data for storage in an Airbus cloud, aimed at clients such as insurance agencies specialising in crop-damage assessments.

Rosenmann said that although the remote-sensing project presented a viable business model, it was a stepping stone towards air-taxi development in that it refined the necessary software.

While her division works out business solutions for air-taxi fleet management, among others, experimentation on the development of cargo drones and prototype air taxis is being driven by chief technology officer Paul Eremenko's team in Silicon Valley.

Eremenko explained how the air-taxi concept had taken off with the development of electric-fuel hybrid propulsion systems in 2010, rapidly evolving into the eight-rotor Vahana vertical takeoff-and-landing, or VTOL, demonstrator that is "the pillar of our urban air-mobility portfolio".

Vahana is now being developed into a four-seat Airbus VTOL air taxi "expected to have its first flight next year".

The need is clear: urban traffic congestion is expected to cost France, Germany, the UK and the US €268-million (about R4.2-billion) a year by 2030.

Meanwhile, the value of Europe's demand for UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) services stands at €10-billion a year (compared with €450-million a year in South Africa), and climbing rapidly.

The number of commercial UAVs estimated to be airborne in the EU by 2025 is 400,000, according to economist Roelof Botha, speaking at South Africa's second annual Drone Con in June.

Donovan Andersen of Anglo American complained about South Africa's onerous drone regulations, put in place by the Civil Aviation Authority in July 2015.

The CAA, responsible for air safety, did not respond to requests for comment. But under its process companies wishing to fly drones need to acquire a "remotely piloted aerial system operator certificate" and an "air service licence" from the Department of Transport - and each of its pilots need to qualify for their "remote pilot's licence". Each of its drones must be CAA tested, certified and registered and have public liability insurance of R500,000.

Each certificate is valid for only 12 months and is site-specific, requiring repeated CAA site inspections.

Anglo American acquired its first corporate certificate from the CAA in December 2015, enabling it to fly drones over its Rustenburg Platinum Mines and New Vaal Colliery sites. But it has since sold New Vaal and so has to apply for fresh certificates for its Goedehoop and New Denmark collieries.

The company has 16 drones certified, registered and flying, with four pilots trained, licensed and working at Kumba Iron Ore, and two pilots at Rustenburg.

But the pilots had to be re-tested every year, Andersen said.

"To our dismay, we found that our pilots had to be medically fit, too, and we had to train them in photogrammetry" - reading the visual data gathered.

The company was surprised that it had to create new drone operations staff, including a flight operations chief, UAV maintenance chief, a safety manager and a quality manager, for each of its four divisions.

"The administration is onerous and the load is tremendous," Andersen said.

For smaller operations, the burden can break the bank. At last year's inaugural Drone Con, filmmaker FC Hamman said he had almost bankrupted himself spending up to R500,000 to get his Cape Town company and pilots licensed.

Only one company in South Africa is licensed to fly drones at night and beyond visual line of sight: aerial security and anti-poaching firm UAV & Drone Solutions, which has operated in Kruger National Park.

Still, the pressure of this burgeoning industry to reshape CAA regulations to allow for innovation is intense. Already, Anglo has applied to the CAA for special permission to extend its drone flights to beyond visual line of sight and above the operating ceiling of 300ft at its Kumba sites. It has added a request for night flying at its Amandelbult platinum mine - as it has lost R17-million to theft thereover the past year.

Meanwhile, an urban UAV air-cargo delivery concept is being tested with Airbus' Skyways project in Singapore alongside the National University, flying small parcels via secure corridors.

China is expected to test its first one-ton cargo UAV within two years.

But in the near future, "we are talking air vehicles transporting people, and that's safety and certification, everything that's linked to it ... We are working closely with the regulatory bodies to say, OK, let's do a real-life development ... so it is a joint journey," said Rosenmann.

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