Sparks Electrical News

Dynamic Remotely Operated Navigation Equipment. DRONES. These wonders of technology are systematically entering all facets of industry. When I was an Industrial Engineering student in the mid-90s, a lecturer once jokingly sketched a picture (for the class) of the one-man factory: everything is automated. The only human left in the plant is the bloke who feeds the guard dog! About two decades later we are technologically at the brink of realising this vision. Automation, robotics and drones are what will make it happen.

But what is a drone? Is it the Reaper Military flying machine that the USA used to selectively bomb Afghanistan? Or maybe those buzzing quadcopter camera drones bratty teenagers use to spy on their neighbour’s daughter at the swimming pool, and estate agents use to take photos of the latest piece of real estate? Is it the automated Google car that is being pitched as the solution to all rush hour traffic problems, or the autonomous tractor that large commercial farmers trigger to automatically plough, plant, fertilise, weed and harvest their crops?

Drones There is a catch Sparks

All the above fit the definition of a drone. These robotics instruments range from miniature to massive. Some are dumb brutes while others have state-of-the-art artificial intelligence.

I believe drones are the disruptive technology of the century and possibly beyond.

A drone increases productivity, reduces the amount of human labour required to complete a job; much like computer aided design (CAD) reduced the number of draughtsmen needed per engineer on a construction job.

For those that resist change it is a threat. But to the innovative contractor it becomes a tool that gives him a competitive advantage. Imagine a future where a contractor can deploy microdrones to crawl into trunking, identify a hotspot and repair it in less time than it will take a conventional worker to pull the wires. With the right minds applied in development this can very well become a tool which is affordable and available to small contractors soon.

Other types of drone technology are already commercially available, in the form of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). These small remote-controlled aeroplanes, and quadcopters, are becoming commonplace on construction sites and in heavy industry. Equipped with Near Infrared Cameras and other sensing technologies, they can identify hotspots on High Tension overhead lines faster and more accurately than a linesman can ever dream of doing it. They make inspections of hard-to-come-by items a breeze, whizzing up into the sky to check up on everything from power station towers to cell phone towers. But there is a catch.

Drones and electrical contractors

Electricians have the Electrical Contractors Board and the Occupational Health and Safety Act to worry about, and no competent electrician will argue that a government ticket or a wireman’s license is a silly concept. The rules and regulations are there to keep the artisan, his client and the end user safe. A competency issue in a worker who must perform switching on a substation can lead to major incidents, massive power outages and death.

As a newly appointed safety specialist at a Chrome Smelter, I myself landed in serious trouble when I walked unannounced into a substation. It was quite embarrassing to receive a scalding from the electrician for not announcing myself and for entering without permission. I learned the consequences of messing with the regulatory turf of an electrician first hand in a very embarrassing way!

While the safety officers we rub shoulders with in the contractor’s world make us very familiar with the Occupational Health and Safety Act and its regulations, and while we know what the penalties are for contraventions on the General Machinery Regulations, the only thing most landlubbers know about aviation safety management is that it is so advanced that our safety officers just vaguely refer to it as ‘the best practice management system for safety’.

The Aviation Industry, like the Electrical Industry, is well regulated. Before RPAS arrived in our skies, it was singularly concerned with manned aviation, and if that was not your job or you were not wealthy enough to take to the skies for fun, the closest you got to this game was when you went for a plane trip to Windhoek or Nelspruit to visit your family.

Then, in a matter of a decade, affordable small model aircraft with cameras, reasonable battery life and advanced flight management systems flooded the market causing a whole new hype. These RPAS became trendy among kids, teens, yuppies, contractors and engineers.

The South African Civil Aviation Authority took notice of these small buzzing cameras in the sky and became very worried. Their mandate is granted by the Department of Defence, and Civil Aviation must ensure that it stays safe and secure or risk military aviation removing their mandate and taking full control of the skies.

Aviation incidents are deemed a matter of national security. These incidents are investigated by the Department of Defence, and all other Investigators must, by law, stop their investigations during an aviation related incident and stand back when the DoD arrives on the scene.

The National Aviation Safety Board, with National Intelligence, and the Secret Service as board members, certainly were very concerned. How will these airborne cameras affect personal privacy rights enshrined in the Constitution? How will a jet airplane in take-off respond to a direct impact on a turbine with the explosive battery of an RPAS? What about a low flying police helicopter or a fire fighting chopper connecting its propeller to the quadcopter of a curious teen? What is the possibility of a terrorist buying a cheap drone, loading it with Anthrax and setting it off on an automated flight path into a jam-packed Moses Mabhida stadium?

In 2014, the Director of Civil Aviation grounded all drones/RPAS and in July 2015 the new regulations for RPAS were promulgated. Anyone who intends to use an RPAS for anything other than recreational purposes must obtain an RPAS Operator Certificate (ROC) or work with an ROC Holder. The holder of an ROC takes immense responsibility for his or her aviation operation, equal to or more than that of a Competent Person under the General Machinery Regulations. Commercial pilots with an RPAS Pilots License (RPL) have but the right to be employed by an ROC holder – they may not fly independently. Civil Aviation audits these ROC holders regularly and checks their compliance to the Aviation Act and its regulations. Flying a quadcopter for anything other than recreational purposes without an ROC is a crime that can result in imprisonment.

Many illegal operators exist. Many believe they will not get caught. Some very influential business tycoons in South Africa’s recent history also thought they would not get caught.

But what if something goes wrong? What if a small drone used on a construction site loses control and scars a construction worker with its fast spinning blades? What if the safety officer decides to report the incident to Civil Aviation? What if this small quadcopter loses control, crashes in dry grass and sets it alight causing a Knysna-like incident? Will an insurance company honour a claim from an incident caused by criminal action?

In our opinion, the risk of flying a drone/RPAS illegally is as great as sending an incompetent, unqualified worker to perform switching in a substation, maybe worse. We have a responsibility to ourselves, our businesses, our employees and our clients to stay up to date with technology, and to make use of every opportunity that can add value. But we also have a responsibility to work safely and responsibly. Our families rely on us to come home every day, and not to get involved in activities that can potentially land us in jail.

Franz Fuls is the managing director of Compact Aerial Services CAA/FOD/ROC00019, a graduate member of the South African Institute of Occupational Health and Safety and an Industrial Engineering Technologist.

Enquiries: www.compactaerial.co.za

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Contact Sparks Electrical News

Title: Editor
Name: Gregg Cocking
Email: sparks@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622-4770
Fax: +27 11 615-6108

Title: Advertising Manager
Name: Carin Hannay
Email: carinh@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622-4770
Fax: +27 11 615-6108

 
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