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“Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and gliders, also known as autonomous underwater vehicles  (AUVs), are classified as Remotely Piloted Vehicles, and are rapidly gaining ground globally as they have revolutionary potential in their diverse applications,” says mechanical engineer, Damian Mooney, who is one of South Africa’s few specialists in Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). He has been a commercial pilot for 20 years and is a member of the Mandela University Autonomous Operations (MAO) Group in the Faculty of EBEIT, which is working on a range of pioneering drones and gliders to support the research conducted by the university’s scientists and engineers.

“One of the inventions the MAO Group is working on is an automated, multirotor hovering drone that can be airborne in 15 to 20 seconds from the moment a crime scene or danger alarm is triggered. It would steer itself to the scene and then take live footage for the police or security companies,” Mooney explains.

The image recognition capabilities, which need to be of the highest quality and resolution for the authorities to clearly identify people, has already been available for years as it is used in the military and by security companies. “The software is available but we want to integrate it in a different way –

Instead of a person going to the hot spot and piloting the drone from there, this drone is completely automated from the time the alarm is triggered,” Mooney elaborates.

“We would require the necessary permission from the authorities, but at this stage we want to see if we can develop the technology. One of our master’s students in the MAO Group, Benjamin Nelson, is focusing his research on this and it should be ready by the end of the year.”

Currently, it is the permit aspect that is impeding the harnessing of the full potential of drones, not the technology, as the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) stipulates that an RPAS Operating Certificate is required, with 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 is working on getting Nelson Mandela University certified, but the process may take up to two years.

“In the meantime we are carrying on with our research and innovation,” Mooney explains.

“The potential is phenomenal as drones can be fitted with multispectral cameras and data- collecting capacity for a wide range of functions, including delivering blood and medical supplies to remote areas (similar to the work being done by Zipline in Central Africa). Drones can take 3D images of buildings for restoration, renovation or extension purposes, for marine science data capturing out at sea, marine and land surveys, such as dolphin and penguin surveys. Drones with thermal and infrared images can monitor livestock and help prevent stock theft, as well as conduct agricultural crop surveys to determine water, growth and health levels, and which crops need irrigation or spraying.”

MAO and the Centre for African Conservation Ecology

The MAO team is currently working on projects with the director of the Centre for African Conservation Ecology at Mandela University, Distinguished Professor Graham Kerley.

One of the projects requires the use of drones to collect data from tagged big game, such as elephants and rhinos.  Kerley asked if they could come up with airborne, low-power cellphone technology that can cover a specific area and upload data from all the tagged animals in this area every second day.

Without this technology, the researchers on Kerley’s team have to physically locate the animals on the ground to upload the data, and because it is time-consuming, it is only happening once a month. The data, which includes the temperature and movements of the animal, is transmitted from a matchbox-sized device on the animal’s ear.

MAO and the Africa Earth Observatory Network (AEON)

With specialised instruments on board drones can be used to map and generate subterranean images for deep geophysics research, including surveying rock down to one kilometre below the surface. This was done last year by Professor Moctar Doucouré of the Africa Earth Observatory Network (AEON) of the Earth Stewardship Science Research Institute (ESSRI) at Mandela University. The drone carried up to 5kg of equipment, and was used to monitor the surface and ecosystem of the Karoo.


Drones are also used for package deliveries to remote locations. MAO master’s student, James Sewell, is working on “FrankenDrone”

– an autonomous aircraft that can deliver a package on to the deck of moving ships out at sea, which do not have the ability to stop easily,  as opposed to using   a manned helicopter or airplane, which is far more expensive. FrankenDrone uses stereographic cameras to determine how fast the ship is travelling for an accurate “bomb drop”. Sewell will complete his project at the end of 2018, and the next master’s student will work on the next generation model.

FrankenDrone, which spans four metres across and has both a fuel and electric motor, can be rapidly deployed, with a 5kg payload capacity. It was manufactured in 2017 by one of the exchange students in the EBEIT Faculty’s Renewable Energy Lab – Sebastian Pietzka from Reutlingen University in Germany – and its flight potential is now being taken further.

“I named it FrankenDrone because there is there is a lot of mixing and matching of parts. Despite its looks, it’s such a practical drone – each side is an independent aircraft with its own power, control surfaces and receiver modules, It’s effectively two aircraft flying in tight formation, which means if there is a fault on one side it can still fly the mission.”

MAO and the UK-SA Bilateral Chair in Ocean Sciences

Moving on to the autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), the MAO Group is working with marine scientist, Professor Mike Roberts, who is leading a new research chair, called the UK-SA Bilateral Chair in Ocean Science and Marine Food Security, based at Nelson Mandela University’s new Ocean Sciences Campus.

The joint hosts of the Chair are Nelson Mandela University and the United Kingdom’s leading marine science research and technology institutions: the University of Southampton (UoS) and the Southampton-based National Oceanography Centre (NOC), which are assisting with the hexpensive technology for data collection, including ships, automated subsea gliders, moorings, satellites and ocean models.

Automated subsea gliders are about 3.5m long and weigh a few hundred kilograms. These gliders gather critical deep-sea ocean information, such as on ocean physics and upwelling, which directly underpins marine food security and all levels of the food chain in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO). The WIO has the most serious food security problem on the planet. It extends all the way up     the eastern coast of Africa, including Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, and the island states of Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles, Mauritius and Réunion.

“What is currently missing from the WIO portrait is a lightweight glider alternative, which we believe we can offer the partnership,” Mooney explains.

“A delegation from our research team went to the NOC- Southampton and to leading companies in Norway that manufacture AUVs, to be exposed to the latest AUV technology.

“It is is very impressive but it relies on ships, which is the key problem faced by Prof Roberts and his team who have very limited access to research ships and gliders in South Africa and the WIO African coastal countries we partner. At present the data being captured is from gliders and sensors weighing anything from a few hundred kilograms to tons,” continues Mooney.

“The logistics of getting these sensors out to sea often involves international research ship support, which is extremely costly and time consuming. Our goal is to come up with smaller sensors that we can get out to sea without ships. We are using this as an opportunity to innovate technology that solves our shortfall in large vessel support, in the same way that limited hardwire telephone infrastructure led to African countries developing some of the world’s most advanced cellphone networks.

“Instead of trying to get a few big sensors that do all the work out at sea from ships, our research is about deploying large numbers of lighter, smaller sensors that can be transported in packs and deployed by airborne drones or smaller autonomous surface vessels. Instead of one autonomous glider or heavy sensor bundle trying to gather multiple types of data, each small sensor will have one very focused task to keep it small and transportable.”

The possibility of having drones (surface or airborne) that remain on task for days at a time and act as relays back to home stations means the small sensors would also not need to carry and power bulky satellite communication modules; they could have smaller efficient Wi-Fi style modules and transmit much larger data packages back to base through the relay and bypass the satellite communications.

Mooney explains that a drone 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. When they go down to depths of 6000m, for example, there is no communication. When the glider returns to the surface, it has an antenna and it 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.

“Researchers are therefore not getting rapid information, or information in the detail they need, and it is also very expensive, so our idea is the cost-effective Wi-Fi type system – which can feed real-time information – with the glider being programmed to deliver bigger data packages far more frequently.

“One of our students is currently working on a solar-powered system where FrankenDrone’s wings are 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 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 the South African and African challenges.”

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777