DRONES IN THE PUBLIC SERVICE

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By Jack Shilubana   

The use of drones has risen phenomenally in the past 10 years. The commercial drone market is estimated globally to be at $20,8 billion in 2021. The rise in the use of drones across multiple sectors is as a result of the value and convenience that drone technology offers in various segments. Among the major constraints to the adoption of this technology is the lack of understanding of drone technology by decision makers. As this understanding of its benefits increases, adoption of solutions will rise.

This article is aimed at discussing the areas where drones can offer value in the public sector. It is not meant to be exhaustive in terms of the areas but just pointing out a few of such areas. A secondary intention is to highlight some of the requirements of implementing a drone program for organizations. This is due to the fact that the environment is highly regulated and many have fallen short of compliance and bought equipment which could not be used as they did not comply with the various regulatory requirements. This leads to fruitless and wasteful expenditure as the equipment lies disused for years whilst the battle to try and comply goes on.

Organizational and Personnel requirements of implementing a drone program

In implementing a drone program, an institution needs to acquire an Air Services License (ASL), Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Operations Certificate (ROC) and have licensed pilots with a suitable rating to fly the Remotely Piloted Aircrafts (RPAs)/ drones in their possession. Licensing is done by the Department of Transport (ASL) and the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) requiring the institution to have qualified personnel in various posts as required by the regulations.

The process to get to an ROC has taken many commercial operators a number of years. There are those operators who took up to a maximum of 3 years to be licensed to operate legally. This needs to be considered by organizations requiring a drone program. This process can be shortened by use of a licensed commercial drone operator which becomes a trusted advisor and implementer of solutions whilst developing the requisite skills and capacity. This also assists because legal compliance does not equal skill to execute with excellence. A licensed pilot may perhaps not have sufficient skill and capability to do a building condition assessment for instance, they may require some time and exposure until they can execute the task.

The pilots also need to go through a licensing process and obtain an RPL from an Aviation Training Organisation (ATO) accredited by the Civil Association Authority. There are cases in the public service of drones procured and have not been used as the institutions do not have an ROC as well as licensed pilots.

Drone uses in the public Service

We explore a few use cases for the Public Sector

  1. Mapping and Surveying

Creation of maps of an area enabling for proper planning for infrastructure deployment including where roads, and other services can be deployed. This eliminates and reduces the need for sending out field service teams as the maps can be generated in various forms showing elevations, terrains and other requirements. The entire planning exercise can be done and visualised and perfected in electronic form.

A map of development captured using a drone

  1. Construction Progress Monitoring

The Public Sector is involved in huge construction projects. One of the key challenges is the ability to monitor progress and account for payment-based on progress for executives with multiple project portfolios. Drones can simplify accounting for progress first by providing pre-construction survey maps to support  construction planning processes, then regularly provide progress of construction through pictures of progress including 3D models indicating how far the progress is, thus enabling payment for what is on the construction site. This will reduce potential for audit queries where payment is made for non-existent construction projects. Any disputes can also be settled with ease as the pictures are time and date stamped.

This is applicable for road construction, RDP settlements, office blocks or any other construction projects.

Picture of a Construction site

  1. Disaster Management and Response

Drones have been increasingly used to support disaster management and response. This intervention using drones enables those charged with disaster management activities to assess disaster damage, and to map and optimize routes to disaster impacted situations as well as coordinating interventions and spotting potential dangers in disaster situations without putting people in danger.  Emergency response teams can also use drones equipped with speakers for emergency evacuation purposes and spotting people that are trapped for purposes of rescue by helicopters. This increases the impact of disaster relief whilst minimising danger to human life and reducing cost of disaster management and response. A drone can ease the burden of identifying people trapped in burning buildings, identify access routes and exits, detect hotspots and safe areas for response teams. Drones are ideal for post-disaster infrastructure assessment and enabling authorities, insurance companies to assess the quantum of damage and therefore what is required to rebuild.

Pictures showing damage by Cyclone Eloise

  1. Public Announcement, Messaging and Crowd Control (Major Events)

Public announcements are necessary for a variety of reasons- governments need to reach communities quicker, especially in densely populated areas like informal settlements and to communicate information during gatherings such as community meetings. This was used successfully by the Greater Tzaneen Municipality during the COVID-19 National Lockdown in Aril 2020 to promote social distancing, regular sanitising of spaces and washing of hands including monitoring of social distancing using drone technology to ensure compliance to Disaster Management Regulations. It can be applied to messaging to promote vaccination and other public announcements, amongst others.

Messaging Drone about to take off during the COVID-19 Pandemic encouraging compliance to COVID-1Protocols

  1. Building Condition Assessment 

Drones are useful for assessing the condition of buildings. To determine the extent of cracks on buildings, leaks on roofs including conditions such as rusts and structural integrity. This will be useful for a school building maintenance program documenting the condition of each building and developing a maintenance plan and material required. This can be followed by progress monitoring of any maintenance work performed. The same process will be applicable for roads and other public infrastructure condition assessment.

This ensures compliance with building regulations that all buildings should be assessed annually to determine their condition. The assessment identifies defects in the buildings such as cracks, roof leaks, and any other damage to the building.

 Pictures of a building from drone used to identify defects on the roof and façade of the building.

Value and benefits of using drone technology 

The Public Sector is about service delivery and drones support efficient service delivery, allow for monitoring of projects and reduce wastage including cost reduction compared to conventional methods.

Conclusion

Drones are useful tools and devices for delivery of public services and improvement of how services are rendered. They offer greater efficiencies in other environments as pointed out in the various examples mentioned above. They require proper planning to deploy over a period of time. They can be deployed with speed using accredited service providers which eliminates the need for investment in expensive infrastructure and people whilst enabling the benefits of their use. Departments can start small and scale up with applications which can be impactful and reduce wastage of resources and then move onto other applications progressively. A drone program can also facilitate the training and multi skilling of staff in newer tools

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Jack Shilubana is Operations Director, SA Flying Labs and Managing Director of Tinghwazi Consulting, which is a member of the QP Consortium. He is also a Drone Pilot and has many years’ experience in ICT Consulting and management.