Out of adversity comes opportunity- that’s if we choose to be bold and harness the opportunities that innovation and technology can bring. And the opportunity is something desperately needed by the aviation industry as it recovers from the COVID 19 pandemic – the direst event to strike aviation since the Second World War.
No one needs reminding how COVID 19 has devastated every sector of civil aviation – from airlines to flight schools, airports to maintenance organisations. It will take many years for the industry to recover and some businesses may never return. However, the pandemic does present an ideal opportunity for South Africa and other countries to introduce new ideas and technologies that have started to emerge and undoubtedly represent the future of aviation.
Much of the technology and methodologies used in aviation today date back to the Second World War. The airline industry was built on surplus C47 aircraft operating from airfields constructed during the war, flown and maintained by personnel trained by the military. Radar, jet propulsion and pressurised cabins were cutting edge wartime technologies harnessed by civil aviation in the post-war era. The Chicago Convention in 1944 created the regulatory structure that facilitated the adoption and implementation of these technologies and systems.
There is no denying that the technology and methodology we inherited from the war has served us well, for more than 70 years. However, in the last three years or so it has become increasingly evident that many things in aviation are not working optimally anymore. Change and reform is needed on the safety and economic front and in the structures that internationally and domestically promote and regulate the industry. Most importantly we need to improve the way we nurture and bring on line emerging aviation technologies.
At home, many feel that South Africa’s standing as the predominant aviation power on the African Continent has been substantially eroded over the past decade and we have been eclipsed in various aviation activities by Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya. The success of Ethiopian Airlines versus the failure of South African Airways is one example of this. The reasons for this decline are wide-ranging such as South Africa’s decade long economic stagnation, a weak and unstable currency, decline, corruption and inefficiencies within state-owned enterprises and a failure by certain authorities to regulate in a way that allows the Industry to implement equipment and operating changes, quickly and cost-effectively. If the South African aviation sector is to recover after the pandemic and replace the thousands of jobs lost, then Industry, as well as government, will need to change the way they do things and become more innovative and co-operative.
With respect to nurturing and implementing emerging technologies, there has been a failure by most aviation regulators to establish an equitable regulatory framework for “urban air mobility” and especially incorporate drone technology into civil airspace so that viable businesses can be created.
New technologies can bring challenges as well as opportunities and this is especially the case with drones. There are indeed valid safety, security and privacy concerns regarding the operation of drones in urban environments. Well publicised instances exist where drones have threatened airport airspace security and intruded into the flight paths of large passenger aircraft.
Also, the public is concerned by the prospect of swarms of unregulated drones intruding onto their properties whilst delivering takeaways and online purchases to the next-door neighbour. However, these challenges can be overcome by the correct combination of regulation and technology. In Europe, the Volocopter is making rapid progress with the development of passenger drones that can be used as “Air Taxi’s and Xwing has recently successfully flight-tested a Cessna Caravan flown from the ground.
Meanwhile, Avion Solutions in the United States has developed safe and effective operating systems for drones that record, manage and monitor all flights Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLS). By limiting drone operations, to Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) operations only, many regulators have curtailed the development and application of drones in the same way that the early development of the motor car was stifled by the law requiring a porter to carry a red flag in advance of each vehicle. But not all countries are against innovation.
China and India recognise the potential of drone technology and are looking at adopting regulatory regimes that will allow their drone industries to grow so they can be major players in the emerging field. In South Africa, although Part 101 of the regulations, does allow the SACAA to approve BVLS operations for drones, this authorisation is provided on a very limited, ad hoc and discretionary basis. Therefore, Part 101 cannot be regarded as recognising drones as equal and integrated users of the airspace.
A recent development in the United Kingdom is worth noting and could be something that South Africa could emulate. Realising how important the adoption of new technology will be for the future of their aviation industry in a Post Brexit and Covid 19 era, the UKCAA has just established a special innovation department to facilitate innovation in aviation.
This department is funded by the UK department of business, energy and industrial strategy, the equivalent of South Africa’s department of trade and industry (Dti). The UKCAA innovation team has created three structures to facilitate their work. Firstly, there is an “Innovation Gateway” which allows anyone working on a new aviation development to submit questions to the UKCAA and obtain quick answers on regulatory-related issues. The second structure is “Regulatory Laboratory”. This laboratory brings together regulators, academia and the public to develop potential regulatory models and avoids duplication between government agencies. The third structure is the so-called “Regulatory Sandpit” where the UKCAA gives initial guidance to innovators on the development and potential approval of ideas.
It is anticipated that the establishment of the innovation department will significantly change the way the UKCAA works with individuals and companies in the innovation sector and will allow for quicker and more efficient adoption of innovative ideas and technologies.
If South Africa is serious about wanting to create opportunity in the aviation industry post-Covid 19, it would be worthwhile for our aviation authority to follow the UKCAA’s example and set up an innovation department.