Scientists develop high-tech blimp that could help track people during lockdown in South Africa

A small group of local and international scientists are working on drone technology that could help assist with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in South Africa.

Professor Qingguo Wang of the Institute of Intelligent Systems (IIS) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) said that a ‘pandemic drone’ and other aviation technology could ensure that citizens comply with prevention measures.

“UJ and researchers at Beihang University in Beijing joined forces to find an alternative solution to ensure compliance with social distancing measures that were implemented by most countries worldwide. The result – an unmanned aerial vehicle, named Rudderless,” said Professor Wang.

Wang said that ‘Rudderless’ is part of a new generation of drones with guaranteed safety and superior performance.

Its specifications are as follows:

  • 4.5 meters long;
  • 1.2 meters wide;
  • 2 meters high;
  • Approximately 8kg ;
  • Working time of around 4 hours.

“The interdisciplinary team has reinvented the blimp by designing technology that could be used to monitor social distancing, spot if people are wearing masks, and even track whether they have a fever,” Professor Wang said.

“We envision that the use of thermal and infrared cameras; real-time images and the control of distance between people; and the direct reporting to relevant parties via wireless communication will transform the aviation sector.

“We trust that the rollout of the autonomous airship technologies will be instrumental during the pandemic.”


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.

However, the firm has noted that regulations have restricted the wide-spread use of drones in the country.

“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.”

Read: South Africa plans to introduce a new high-speed train system

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Scientists develop high-tech blimp that could help track people during lockdown in South Africa