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Learning To Fly

As drone technology begins to take off in South Africa, Adam Oxford looks at the need to train more armchair pilots.
Image: Raven XL performing a railway inspection. Image: Raven XL performing a railway inspection.

Ever since low-cost, easy-to-fly and semi-autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (more commonly known as UAVs, or drones) descended en masse into our shopping malls, they’ve been the Christmas gift of the year for kids and grown-up kids alike.

They’re not just toys, though; high-profile companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook have made headlines with futuristic business uses for parcel delivery or mobile internet masts.

Now that the hype around drones is starting to calm down – their effectiveness in the bush is limited, and Google has cancelled its internet-beaming drone project – real-life business cases are starting to appear.

In South Africa, they’re popular with farmers, for inspecting boundary fences, for example. Mines are turning to drones to monitor blast zones remotely and move humans from dangerous areas. Surveyors are using them to inspect land areas, and, of course, the film industry is saving a small fortune, thanks to being able to ditch expensive helicopter flights for airborne cinematography.

All of this exciting activity opens up new career options. So, what does it take to be a drone operator?

Get your drone licence

The good news for those looking to fly drones as a career is that we’re going to need a lot of pilots, but the process of gaining a licence and operating permit isn’t an overly easy one. However, once you do have a Remote Pilots Licence (RPL), you’re effectively joining a closed shop.

Sean Rietz is the CEO of United Drone Holdings, a company that trains pilots, builds drones and consults industry on their application. He believes there could be thousands of opportunities for pilots in mining alone, but the job isn’t what people might expect it to be.

“There are a lot of disillusioned people thinking that they are going to become a drone entrepreneur,” Rietz says. “They buy a drone, spend R20 000 on RPL training, then don’t know where to go next.”

While drone operation is still new and exciting, he says, it’s not glamorous. The big opportunities right now are in industrial and mining applications, which often mean being based in remote areas and working long hours under extreme conditions. The next big application, he believes, will likely be security: which will mean night flying too.

“Demand for pilots is growing,” Rietz says, “but it has to be the right type of people. Drones are really about data, acquiring it and turning it into a tool to make a better business decision.”

For this reason, he says, drone projects in areas such as mining are being led by professionals in other fields who add a pilot’s licence to their skillset for specific tasks.

But the industry is young, and still developing. “It’s definitely an area I recommend to people all the time, but it’s not a magic bullet.”

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