South African drone expert, qualified flight examiner and international training and flight operations consultant Justin Melman spoke to World Airnews editor Heidi Gibson about the impact of Covid-19 and some of his experience training military and air force personnel in drone use in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Question: Can you tell us about your training for the United Nations on micro UAS? How were you involved, what was your role and scope of expertise?
I was extremely fortunate to have had my cultural and language skills set tested when I was selected by the United Nations to train over 40 UN and African Union personnel from at least 11 different nations participating in the AMISOM mission in the use of mUAS (ICAO acronym for drones under 25kg) aircraft, to complement their global missions. The aircraft used were basic and commercially available but officially gave the regular United Nations Peacekeeping troops the ability to operate during night-time – something they had not done before. The participants ranged from majors to privates, air force pilots to Infantrymen.
The training programme consisted of the introduction to drones, their basic capabilities, technical and general considerations, operational procedures and planning, situational awareness as well as a heavy focus on compliance in and around heavily used airspaces.
What wasn’t part of the training I gave, was dealing with unannounced incoming mortar drills (proud to say I never left equipment behind or spilt a drop of my coffee while running into a shelter) and the sophisticated guard tower ‘communication network’ who enjoyed shooting off a few rounds when their relief was late. Fortunately, it seems those guards must have passed the previous ‘drone course’, as they understood that what goes up, must come down. We never did need to dive for cover when they went Rambo.
Training and lectures followed the ICAO interim standards and advised procedures for drones, hence the designation of ‘Micro Unmanned Aerial System’ as the programme name.
Quite a few lectures were given on how drones fit in with the United Nations day to day defensive and limited offensive abilities at multiple types of installations and integration with other layered drone systems being used in theatre and the usability of information gathered by them for an over-all tactical assessment.
Question: As a Drone Flight examiner that consults to companies to obtain a Remote Operations Certificate or ROC what does this entail and what is your advice to those wanting to break into this space?
A ROC is the drone equivalent of an AOC, or Aircraft Operations Certificate awarded to an organisation stating that they are safe enough to conduct commercial, corporate and non-profit or for exceptional private flight operations.
In South Africa, the SACAA has followed some AOC processes quite closely with the exception of essentially trying to approve non-type certified aircraft to a commercial aviation organisation. Think Aeroprakt A-22 Foxbat in South African Airways livery (might not be farfetched with their financial history, unfortunately) but some readers would probably rather just learn how to sail a cardboard box instead, at the thought of having to go through that.
The first place to start your ROC is to decide exactly what you want a ROC for and how it will generate income. I know far too many owners and directors of ROCs who have fallen victim of the adage, “How do you make a small fortune in aviation? Start with a large one.” Select your area of expertise and plan around that. Knowing what your ROC will be doing and your budget will make aircraft and systems selection far easier instead of throwing money into a warehouse of aircraft that do not have work.
Secondly, one will need to apply for an Air Service License (ASL) application with the Department of Transport. During this time, it is best to start writing your RPAS Operations Manual (ROM) which you should hand into the SACAA as soon as your ASL is approved. A second priority would be the purchase and registration of the aircraft with the SACAA while waiting for the ASL.
Needless to say, the standards for safety, in writing, are high as with every aspect of aviation. A lot of people have the misconception that safety means their manuals and operational procedures require for more added paperwork. This is a detrimental approach as it limits the amount of time available to actually fly operations. Basically, the less time one is able to fly in a day translates to less time available in a day to generate income.
You will find that it may become a far more expensive exercise in terms of time than it will in terms of financial cost at certain points. Use the lull time wisely by completing other tasks. Master your aircraft, flight planning documentation, read, reread, and understand your Operations Manual.
Create a useful Induction Training Plan and not just a tick box exercise. Conduct Safety meetings, even if they are dummy runs. Don’t be lazy, playing catch-up in aviation is not as easy as one may think.
This use of time to master these processes and tasks will make the desktop audit, inspection and flight demonstration easier and less nerve-racking. An inspector appreciates not having to pull teeth when asking questions or waiting unnecessarily for you to find answers to basic questions.
Another vital point to consider, if your SACAA Inspector makes a comment on your manual or requests any documentation from you – do it as soon as humanly possible. Do not allow them to think that you are uninterested in getting your ROC completed, the Inspectors are busy enough that they will treat you the way your attitude dictates.
Question: Where is South Africa in terms of this sector? Are they in operation in the SANDF/Navy or Air force?
There has been a recurring ‘round the fire’ discussion of what the South African National Defence Force and Air Force should do in terms of dwindling budgets, equipment obsolescence and available expertise. 10 Squadron of the South African Air Force was rumoured to have become operational again. A sale of Denel Seekers to a customer may have had something to do with that in a training role prior to delivery.
The conflict in the Central African Republic and the SANDF involvement there certainly dictates that some form of drone capability is available to our forces, even if it is only with smaller systems than 10 Squadrons Seekers. What has been interesting to see is the number of Defence Force personnel of all branches and varying rank, going through commercial RPL training lately. It certainly shows that there is an interest in drone programs, so hopefully, we’ll hear of some progressive capabilities soon.
Question: Lastly as far as Covid-19 is concerned, what do you believe has been the impact on drones? Some aviation experts are saying that it has been a blessing and there has been an uptick in sales.
As far as COVID solutions are concerned, it has definitely brought about some very creative thinking in terms of solutions. The sale of aircraft may be both a positive and a negative. The positive being the exploration of solutions and keeping those sellers in business. The negative may be that some of that equipment may have been an impulse buy and actually won’t serve them well because it wasn’t researched enough for the purpose.
The initial ideas of using drones for sanitization of public spaces or temperature monitoring is fantastic and forward-thinking as it will lead to other avenues for drones to be implemented in our skies.
Firstly, there’s a whole other discussion we can have about being socially responsible by keeping others employed during this time. Always consider the financial implications of your solutions because while they might be brilliant, just running them might not be economically viable for clients. One thing to consider around the world is, that it may actually be cheaper and better socially and economically to have someone who carries the thermometer or tank and spray nozzle employed for larger projects, over a highly trained pilot with a piece of equipment. The value of which is multiple years’ worth of, the guy with a nozzle’s, salary. It also does not mean that you should then skimp on the cost of a solution or system to try keep as close to, a guy with a nozzle, in terms of costs.
Afrikaans is a wonderful language, sometimes (because I fail to understand most of it), “Goed koop, is duur koop.” Which basically translates to, ‘don’t be a cheapskate, if the thing seems expensive, it will most likely save you money later because it is a quality system and you won’t need to fix it.’ This rings extremely true and I know of some big drone companies who buy wrong and just fork out on the maintenance for their equipment, it’s heartbreaking.
During this time though, I do believe that thought towards drone solutions for unique problems has been very forthcoming, which as always, is brilliant for the industry. New industries deserve new trains of thought applied to them to allow for progress and progressive influence for decision-makers.
The most difficult question to answer though is where the SACAA could potentially relax regulations without jeopardizing safety standards. Up until now, we have had no major drone accidents or incidents in South Africa that have made the news (don’t start now please) which either shows that the system works or we have unusually lucky and/or skilful pilots or incredible training schools. Let’s not be naïve and believe it is just a single one of those options.
I will, however, suggest an easier way of having drones almost ‘type certified’ so that it won’t take as long to get aircraft operational under a ROC. It will save time and effort on the SACAA’s part and create more opportunity for the industry to grow. The growth of the industry also directly benefits the SACAA. I’d prefer to share a mutually win-win relationship with them, to be honest.
*Justin Melman is the owner of Aerospace 3D, an aviation solutions company specialising in drones. He grew up interested in anything that could fly. He is one of the contributing authors to the Amazon #1 Best Selling book ‘Drone Professional ’