Often synonymous with Hollywood blockbuster movies and technological developments of a distant future, drones have shaken off stereotypical thoughts that they only belong on the big screen.
These eyes in the sky are fast emerging as tools that are transforming the delivery of services to Gauteng residents.
Recently drone technology became a very real part of the lives of the province’s citizens, through a partnership formed between the provincial Department of Infrastructure Development (DID) and the University of Johannesburg.
The partnership has resulted in the construction process of critical infrastructure such as schools, clinics, hospitals and libraries being monitored by the use of a drone.
Head of Department at the DID, Bethuel Netshiswinzhe, believes that through the use of drones, government is leveraging on the use of technology, especially that related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, to deliver infrastructure in a smart and efficient manner.
The built environment is still largely a traditional industry, which one might still be forgiven for associating with the Stone Age era of the Flintstones. Just ask MEC Jacob Mamabolo.
“Although it dates back to the days before the building of the Egyptian pyramids, it still remains as one of the most Dark Age methods and has not yet come to where the world is today,” he says.
No doubt, you might ask, what drones and construction sites have to do with one another – except for what has become a common feature of action movies involving a building engulfed in flames and a bespectacled guy watching the whole scene play out through images projected by a drone to a remote control room, but I digress.
At the launch of the programme that was announced back in May, it was announced that the DID was deploying the drone programme as a tool to monitor progress at construction sites.
This essentially limited the single drone to giving the department a snapshot of the site which enabled officials to verify independently whether work is continuing, that material is on site and that the contractor adheres to occupational health and safety standards on site.
While still in its youthful stages, the partnership between the two entities has been refined in the last five months, with the department realising that there is an opportunity to harvest more data other than the hundreds of high images captured by drones.
Commonly known as drones, unmanned aerial vehicles boast top class technologies with simple flight controls.
Through the partnership, officials can now take a virtual tour through the construction site without having to leave the comfort of their offices.
“I can sitting in the office and walk through the construction site without me needing to be there and see the milestones reached on site without having to drive to the site,” remarked a clearly chaffed Mamabolo.
A demonstration of how the process is carried out also shows how through the use of technology, officials can accurately measure quantities of materials on site, in this case at the Greenspark Clinic, which is currently under construction in Fochville, without having to physically visit the project.
Among the ground breaking capabilities that this collaboration has brought to the fore is the ability to regularly monitor progress on site as it relates to architectural drawings, an extremely important feature as it empowers DID to detect any variations from the plans.
This is crucial especially in containing cost escalations and guaranteeing that a project will be delivered in accordance to the plans.
Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Applied Research and Innovation in the Built Environment (CARINBE), Professor Innocent Musonda, believes it is now possible to process photos taken by the “staff” complement of five drones to generate both 2 D and 3 D models.
“We can check where information claimed by contractors is there or not there,” said the Professor, adding that pictures from the drones are exported to a software which overlays over what was initially imagined to be constructed and compared for variations.
In addition to being able to accurately measure supplies such as sand on site, the technology makes it not only possible to track material supplier for maintenance purposes, but also makes it possible for the department to keep tabs of which sectors of the economy are benefiting from the inputs into the built projects.
The capabilities of the programme will drastically reduce scope variations, the shifting of milestones which delays service delivery and leave state coffers bleeding while also opening the door for corruption and fraudulent activities which have marred the industry.
The technology also helps the department to conduct quality checks during the construction process as opposed to discovering variations only once the project has been completed.
The use of this technology no doubt speaks to the National Development Plan’s (NDP) Outcome 6 of an efficient, competitive and responsive economic infrastructure network. This infrastructure it notes, efficiently delivers essentials like electricity, water and sanitation.
The MEC is acutely aware that in past projects, it would be claimed that activities were taking place on site while in reality very little work if at all was taking place on the ground. Through the use of smart technology, the department is tracking progress made on a fortnightly basis to ensure that targets are reached.
A constant bug-bear of the sector relates to the timeous delivery of infrastructure, within budget and with the desired quality.
Drone technology is addressing this in that software is able to be overlaid on what was initially imagined to be constructed and compare deviations.
Further adding fuel to the fire to the industry that continues to be depressed, are often flawed tender processes where companies tendering for projects submit the lowest fare bids. After securing the tender, these companies then introduce scope changes that will eventually drive up the cost of the project.
Certainly one drone at a time is changing the way in which the department is delivering on its projects, ultimately making a difference in the lives of citizen.
With the help of this technology, the department is able to keep tabs on its spread of 340 projects valued at around R4.5 billion of which R1.7 billion has been allocated for the 2018/19 financial year.
“We are trying to improve our work and these new capabilities are an important aspect to our systematic and continued determination to root out corruption,” said Mamabolo who also spoke out against the abuse of scope changes.
Technological advancement which was once thought to be a figment of movie makers scripts and imagination have come to life, fundamentally changing the way the world addresses its challenges.
“Digital technology and Artificial Intelligence is not the future anymore; it’s the present; it has taken off. What we are doing now is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we can be able to achieve. We are living in very exciting times,” said Musonda.
Visiting University of Toronto Professor Murray Metcalfe of the Globalization Centre for Global Engineering attests that there is a huge opportunity for sub-Saharan African countries to better themselves through the use of technology.
“We see this fertile combination of the use of technology, strong engineering schools, very entrepreneurial environment and the potential growth of the economy given projected growth of the populations, particularly in cities.”
“We see all those things creating an opportunity to leap frog ahead from a technological point of view to bypass a number of issues with other world cities and to move to a new unique African form of a city to be defined by Africans.”
Acknowledging that technological advancements often face rejection by communities fearing a loss of jobs, these advancements can be used to the benefit of communities.
“Certainly in general, people are hesitant regarding change, particularly around issues of privacy and access to personal data, we see that in Canada also. However there is great evidence that there will be other new types of industries that will require greater human endeavour than it has in the past, while some tasks may be automated with the use of Artificial Intelligence.
“There will be other things having to do with the advancement of human life, of research into healthcare and social services. Certainly there are great opportunities and challenges,” he said.
While the 2001 blockbuster AI Artificial Intelligence was set in a post climate change era in the future, AI has arrived and is changing the world as we know it one drone at a time. Now would you please pass the popcorn?