Ian Melamed of ProWings Training is one of those drone industry veterans who seems to know something about almost every drone mission happening on his continent. As South Africa’s first licensed drone instructor, he should – he’s been involved somehow with many of them.
Passionate about the drone industry in his country and around the globe, Melamed spoke at the Drones Africa Summit today about the success – or lack thereof – of drone programs in Africa.
Melamed began by telling a story he’s clearly bitterly disappointed in: while parks in Tanzania have successfully used drones to combat poachers, Kruger National Park in South Africa has pulled out of their drone program, citing a lack of success. While it’s a discouraging note for the country’s emergent drone industry, Melamed says that lessons can be learned. The Kruger program, he says, used the wrong drones and the wrong operations for the job. Poachers aren’t stopped just by being recorded: successful programs recognize that they need to be scared away with a larger and more intimidating aircraft. Understanding the goal and the mission more thoroughly from the beginning might have saved the program. “That’s what Africa needs to understand,” says Melamed. “You can bring technology from the US and other places over, but if you don’t understand Africa you won’t get anywhere.”
However, with a combination of deep experience and humor (“I’ve always been naughty,” he says, after breaking up the room with a gentle poke at both operators and regulators) Melamed goes on to say that drones can make big contributions in Africa – as long as operators remember that they’re only a means to an end.
“What’s a drone in the commercial world?” he asks. “It’s just another tool….The drone by itself does absolutely nothing without the people and the systems behind it. And if we don’t have them we’re going to kill the industry,” says Melamed.
That said, Melamed sees tremendous opportunity for the global drone industry in Africa. “Africa is a wonderful testing country – we’ve got a combination of the best of the first world and the worst of the third world,” he says. “Africa is a country of innovation through necessity.”
While regulation can be slow to allow new applications (“People love to blame regulators,” says Melamed. “Marvelous! I’d love to have someone to kick and blame,”) the drone industry needs to focus on solving real problems to see success.
“The exciting thing is that [the drone industry] brings about tremendous opportunities to experience and resolve challenges towards the uplift of lives in Africa,” he says. “This is a reality. 70% of the roads in Africa are impassable at certain times of the year – if you need something put there the only way to get it there is by air.” It’s recognizing, and solving, that real need that has led to Rwanda’s drone delivery system of blood and medical supplies. The real problem of Tsetse flies in Ethiopia is being solved with a drone solution. Drones in precision agriculture are providing solutions to Africa’s drought and the food insecurity in some areas. From disaster response to precision agriculture, Africa is utilizing drone technology to improve lives and solve critical problems.
Still, Melamed warns against drone operators acting as a solution in search of a problem, and not fully understanding both the needs and the opportunities in Africa and other emerging countries. And he has a straightforward way of putting it.
“If you don’t know what the hell you’re doing you will screw it up,” he says simply.