Photo United Drone Holdings.
The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) have granted a waiver to United Drone Holdings for companies to install an autopilot artificial intelligence (AI) system for long-range commercial drone flights. Photo United Drone Holdings.
  • The smart system can be attached to a drone and is equipped with an onboard camera that can identify, track and predict if another plane is on a collision course with it. 
  • Should an obstacle pose a threat, it can make intelligent decisions to alter its course and avoid collisions as well as alert the pilot on the ground. 
  • According to Sean Reitz, United Drone Holdings CEO, the device is more accurate than the human eye and will be a game changer for commercial drone companies that conduct long-range operations. 
  • Visit Business Insider SA's homepage for more stories.

A new smart drone system has just been approved for flight in South Africa which takes us one step closer towards making delivery drones - that need to fly long distances and avoid crashing into things – a reality. 

Photo courtesy of Iris Automation.
The 300 gram AI system can be attached to a drone. Photo courtesy of Iris Automation.

The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) have granted a waiver to United Drone Holdings for an smart computer system for long-range commercial drone flights with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities.

The smart technology opens the door, ever more slightly, for the introduction of automated commercialised delivery drones in South Africa, that need to deliver payloads safely and fly long distances that stretch dozens of kilometres or Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) of the pilot.  

Made by San Francisco based Iris Automation, the 300 gram computer can be attached to a drone. With it comes an onboard camera equipped with a machine learning identification system that can identify, track and predict if another plane is on a collision course with it. 

Should an obstacle pose a threat, it can make intelligent decisions to alter its course and avoid collisions, as well as alert the pilot on the ground. 

Photo courtesy of Iris Automation.
Aricraft avoidance. Photo courtesy of Iris Automation.

According to Sean Reitz, United Drone Holdings CEO, the device is more accurate than the human eye and will be a game-changer for commercial drone companies that currently conduct long-range infrastructure inspection, mapping and surveillance for customers throughout South Africa.

Photo courtesy of Iris Automation.
Bird detection. Photo courtesy of Iris Automation.

This includes the inspection of power lines, railways, large scale farms and hopefully soon deliveries of blood and other goods, said Retiz. 

In effect it helps drones see and react to the world in the same way pilots do. And ultimately helps overcome safety concerns raised about drone-type aircraft that lose connection and go on ‘fly aways’. 

Photo courtesy of Iris Automation.
Mountain detection. Photo courtesy of Iris Automation.

“I set out to find a solution that regulators trusted and that was also light and practical enough for everyday use. Being able to comply with the strict regulations put in place by the South African Civil Aviation Authority and unlocking BVLOS has allowed us to conduct daily missions.” 

It brings down the number of crew required to fly BVLOS flights to two. And will save companies needing to employ an army of spotters, or ground-based radar, necessary every time during operations for safety purposes. 

Photo courtesy of Iris Automation.
Single target identification. Photo courtesy of Iris Automation.

The approved device will only make feasible sense for large-scale operations in South Africa. With a price tag of around R200,000 not every drone is going to be able to carry it. 

The device was demonstrated during live flight operations that included automated manoeuvres to avoid collisions with a manned aircraft and has SACAA approval for operations of up to 15 kilometres. 

“The South African Civil Aviation Authority will always be an advocate of innovation in the aviation industry, and hence we remain delighted about the immense benefits of remotely piloted aircraft systems. If there is no transgression of aviation safety and security rules and other laws, we will never stand in the way of this rapidly evolving technology that form the bedrock of the futuristic air transport network,” said the SACAA. 

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