South Africa can use drones to fight the coronavirus – but there’s a hitch

 ·3 May 2020

The Chinese government is piloting ways to incorporate drones into their response to the coronavirus – including the transport of medical samples, the delivery of essential goods and using aerial spray to disinfect areas.

According to law firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, South Africa already has precedent in using drone technology for medical purposes as the South African National Blood Service (SANBS) launched a new drone-based blood delivery system to help deliver blood to people in rural areas in May 2019.

Its purpose is to reduce the cost and time it takes to deliver blood. The programme is in the process of being piloted in Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

The long-term prospects of the programme see it expanding nationwide, making drone technology the standard in the healthcare system in South Africa.

However, some nine months after the project launch, it appears as though SANBS has not yet been granted a licence to operate.

“The CAA is very strict about whom they give the licence to, and everyone has to go through the process. It’s not just about being granted a licence, it’s also about going through the right regulatory procedures and certifications of compliance. Once this has been achieved, we will see the real impact of our return on investment by the number of lives saved,” the SANBS said.

This shows that more can be done to relax regulations  – especially in a time of emergency, said Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr.

“As is apparent from SANBS’s drone-based blood delivery programme, South Africa’s healthcare industry is fully capable of using drones for aerial sprays of disinfectant, to transport medical samples and to deliver essential goods in the time of the Covid-19 crisis,” Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr said.

“The real issue seems to lie in the time it takes the Civil Aviation Authority to grant the requisite licence.”

The firm noted that during a national disaster, where time is of the essence, additional formalities and authorisations to comply with the regulations, together with the hefty cost restraints, act as hindrances to the swift and successful utilization of this technology.

“But if it had the appetite, the Civil Aviation Authority could jump on the  ‘publishing special time-barred regulations for the duration of the state of national disaster’ bandwagon and expedite this process by either lobbying the Minister of Transport to issue a directive under the Disaster Management Act or by publishing its own set of regulations under the Civil Aviation Act.”

The firm noted that the impressive speed at which the state has otherwise acted under the powers granted to it by the Disaster Management Act has led to South Africa emerging as a leader in the war against Covid-19.

“Depending on how the situation unfolds, having an arsenal of cutting edge, custom built disinfectant drones could prove useful in maintaining South Africa’s top position – or it could be the beginning of Skynet’s master plan.”

Commentary by Imraan Abdullah, Ashleigh Gordon, and Anja Hofmeyr of Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr.

Read: Big problems with South Africa’s coronavirus phone tracking system: report

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