The use of drones in the war against COVID-19

Life as we know it has changed overnight with the rapid spread of the COVID-19 Contagion. For some of us it feels as though we have taken a Wrong turn and at Daybreak, have awoken to a Whole New World, Far from Home where a deadly virus has caused a global shutdown. If you haven’t picked up on all the movie and television series references in the first two sentences, then you are among the rare individuals that have not spent their lockdown time binge watching Netflix – congratulations!

29 Apr 2020 6 min read Dispute Resolution Alert Article

But seriously, the virus is a game changer and not just for how humans will conduct themselves in the future but also for innovation. Governments and industries have to adapt to new realities and implement innovative strategies of operating whilst keeping their workers at a safe distance to prevent transmission. China’s healthcare industry for instance has utilized innovative ways to incorporate drones into their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gone are the days where drones were merely used for military surveillance (and uhm “political assassinations”). Today you might find a travel blogger capturing the imposing landscape of Machu Picchu or see a drone whizzing through the streets of Hollywood filming an action-packed movie. This is largely due to advances in technology that have made the technology more affordable. Against that backdrop, the Chinese government has been piloting ways to incorporate drones into their response to the Coronavirus, namely for:

  1. Aerial spray and disinfection;
  2. Transport of samples; and
  3. Drone delivery for essential goods.

The co-founder of agricultural drone company XAG, Justin Gong stated that drones which were originally designed to spray pesticides in the agricultural industry have been adapted for aerial spray of disinfectant in China. He confirmed that aerial spray of disinfectant can be 50 times more efficient than people spraying. The benefit of using drones to transport medical samples is that it can significantly reduce unnecessary human contact and therefore, transmission of the virus. Drones can also deliver the samples much faster via air compared to road travel, which accelerates the feedback process for critical tests needed by medical workers and patients. Lastly, the utilization of drones for delivery of consumer goods such as food and basic necessities, makes it easier for citizens to comply with the regulations regarding social distancing and limiting human contact.

In order to circumvent the obvious safety risks that are associated with the use of drones, such as injuring people or damaging property, the municipal governments in China, its health department, major drone company (Antwork) and the Civil Aviation Administration of China worked in collaboration to approve routes and ensure proper safety measures were implemented.

Can South Africa successfully utilize drones for similar functions in our war against COVID-19 and will our regulatory framework allow for it?

The Eighth Amendment to the Civil Aviation Regulations (Regulations) was introduced in 2015 and governs, in Part 101, the operation of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), described in the Regulations as an unmanned aircraft which is piloted from a remote pilot station, which includes drones.

There is a distinction in the Regulations between private use versus commercial use of RPAS. If drones are to be used for the three functions detailed above, this would fall under the commercial use category.

An RPA will only be allowed to operate for commercial reasons if:

  1. it has been issued with a letter of approval by the Director of Civil Aviation;
  2. it has been issued with a certificate of registration by the Director of Civil Aviation;
  3. an RPAS Operating Certificate (ROC) has been issued; and
  4. an air services licence has been issued in terms of the Air Services Licensing Act, 1990.

In terms of the Regulations a ROC holder is required, inter alia, to:

  1. develop an operations manual containing all the information required to demonstrate how such operator will ensure compliance with the Regulations and how safety standards will be applied and achieved during such operations;
  2. establish a record-keeping that allows adequate storage and reliable traceability of all activities developed;
  3. establish a safety management system commensurate with the size of the organisation or entity; and
  4. conduct security checks on personnel employed in deployment, ensure the RPA is protected from personal interference, ensure that security awareness training is conducted.

Furthermore, the operator is required to obtain an RPA pilot’s licence. In order to acquire the licence, the pilot needs to undergo medical certification, certification of radiotelephony, English proficiency and flight training, as well as pass both a theoretical examination and skills test. The licence is valid for 24 months and applicants must be over 18 years old. The licence holder will have to undergo a revalidation check 90 days prior to the expiry of the licence in order to renew it.

In terms of regulation 101.05.4 of Part 101 of the Regulations, “no object or substance shall be released, dispensed, dropped, delivered or deployed from an RPA except by the holder of an ROC and as approved by the Director in the operators’ operations manual”.

It follows that in order for a company to use drones for aerial spray of disinfectant, sample transport or consumer delivery in the time of COVID-19, the holder of an ROC needs to include this plan in the operator’s operations manual, which has to be approved by the Director of Civil Aviation.

As is apparent from the above, the Regulations for commercial use of a drone are extremely stringent with approvals and oversight required by the Civil Aviation Authority. However, the Regulations are strict for a reason, ensuring safety, top-notch security and adequate training, and protecting against the potential infringement of people’s human rights, such as privacy, dignity and safety. Relaxing these Regulations would create an opportunity for abuse and for criminals to use drones for illegal activity.

Is South Africa equipped to implement drone technologies for delivery services in the health industry?

In May 2019, the South African National Blood Service (SANBS) launched a new drone-based blood delivery system to help deliver blood to people in rural areas. Its purpose is to reduce the cost and time it takes to deliver blood. The programme is in the process of being piloted in Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. The long-term prospects of the programme see it expanding nationwide, making drone technology the standard in the healthcare system in South Africa.

In relation to obtaining Civil Aviation Authority approval, SANBS has stated that:

The CAA is very strict about whom they give the licence to, and everyone has to go through the process. It’s not just about being granted a licence, it’s also about going through the right regulatory procedures and certifications of compliance. Once this has been achieved, we will see the real impact of our return on investment by the number of lives saved.

Some nine months after the project launch, it appears as though SANBS has not yet been granted the licence to operate.

As is apparent from SANBS’s drone-based blood delivery programme, South Africa’s healthcare industry is fully capable of using drones for aerial sprays of disinfectant, to transport medical samples and to deliver essential goods in the time of the COVID-19 crisis. The real issue seems to lie in the time it takes the Civil Aviation Authority to grant the requisite licence.

During a national disaster, where time is of the essence, additional formalities and authorisations to comply with the Regulations, together with the hefty cost restraints, act as hindrances to the swift and successful utilization of this technology. But if it had the appetite, the Civil Aviation Authority could jump on the “publishing special time-barred regulations for the duration of the state of national disaster” bandwagon and expedite this process by either lobbying the Minister of Transport to issue a directive under the Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002 (Disaster Management Act); or by publishing its own set of regulations under the Civil Aviation Act 13 of 2009. The impressive speed at which the state has otherwise acted under the powers granted to it by the Disaster Management Act has led to South Africa emerging as a leader in the war against COVID-19. Depending on how the situation unfolds, having an arsenal of cutting edge, custom built disinfectant drones could prove useful in maintaining South Africa’s top position – or it could be the beginning of Skynet’s master plan (and if you didn’t get that reference, you are truly Lost!).

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