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Reasons to be Proud - #R2bP: In a first of its kind, the biennial international BRICS* Skills Challenge 2020 took place in a virtual online format, and Mandela University student Jacques Welgemoed (23) was part of the experience.

The master’s in Mechatronics student Welgemoed, mentored by Damian Mooney, represented South Africa in the challenge and achieved joint second place with the Temasek Polytechnic of Singapore taking top honours.

This year, 85 participants from 12 countries took part in a seven-day Drone Operating camp and challenge hosted by Copter Ex of Moscow, Russia.

Welgemoed became a volunteer intern with the Mandela University Autonomous Operations (MAO) group in early 2019 showing a strong aptitude for software coding and drone development. He was selected to represent the University and South Africa at the WorldSkills challenge in Kazan, Russia in 2019 where he placed 3rd place behind Russia and China.

“Ideally a new student would have had the opportunity to represent South Africa this year but with limited training time due to COVID, it was decided to give Jacques the opportunity to compete again, this time achieving silver,” says Mooney.

One discipline, in particular drone operating, has surpassed all expectations by not only hosting an online teaching camp but by implementing the actual challenge event and assessing competitors throughout the world simultaneously.

Welgemoed describes the Skills Challenge as fun and a great introduction to autonomous micro aerial vehicles.

“It was interesting to be able to write a programme at home and fly a drone with that programme in a different country. It provided valuable experience working with software relevant to my research topic and the instructors provided helpful feedback and advice with regards to this.

The participants were taught the finer points of drone programming and autonomous indoor navigation in an online classroom before being tutored individually by CoEx personnel to bring all participants up to a similar level of competency.

Over the course of four days, the competitors were tasked with writing code that was then uploaded to physical drones waiting in a warehouse in Russia that would then perform the tasked flights. Competitors were presented with surreal live YouTube footage of their drones, essentially on the other side of the world, flying autonomously using the code they had just written.

The drones needed to navigate to specific positions in the testing warehouse without GPS relying solely on visual cues and then perform measurements on the dimensions of boxes placed at those positions using laser range finders.

Mooney is proud of Welgemoed’s repeated achievements as a member of the MAO. “It is an indication to us that both parties are of a world-class standard. Jacques’ ability to blend a professional approach to the very demanding challenges whilst maintaining a visibly positive disposition of helpfulness and camaraderie instils a sense of patriotic pride having him as an ambassador for South Africa. The Mechatronic Engineering training Jacques has received through Nelson Mandela University has proven to be not only relevant but of a standard that is noticeably competitive with the rest of the world,” he adds.

More information is available from Damian Mooney on 082 672 6451 or

* BRICS is the acronym coined for an association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. 

Contact information
Mr Karl du Preez
Principal Lecturer
Tel: 27 41 504 3644