Wits University's contribution to drone driven economic development
Wits University is playing an active role in unravelling the concept and realities of drones, and together with world efforts, it is showing how in many ways, drones have become the point of integration between what we live on, and the way the life happens to us.
In an article back in 2015 already - Kemantha Govender, Wits university refers to use of drones in an early field trial to deliver laboratory-test-results to help rural communities receive medical help that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. The article notes that Wits Emeritus Professor Barry Mendelow, the champion of usage of drones in healthcare, played a pivotal role in early research on the subject and spearheaded the now famed lab-test delivery field-trial. Mendelow shares a view that drones can create new jobs for local youth and communities in the drone industry. He also notes another spin-off from the application of drones in various aspects of health management, namely teaching and learning opportunities leveraging drone technology.
Wits’ very own graduate Ntokozo Mthethwa successfully tried out as drone training instructor hopeful, to assist him fund completion of his aeronautical studies, and he landed his dream job to do what he loves and to positively affect communities and business. He was offered a drone racing instructor job to teach about drones and how to operate a drone.
Born in Ladysmith and raised in Kagiso, Ntokozo speaks of how he owes it to many people for giving him the opportunities to follow his passion to be in an aeronautical field one day. The possible career exposures he got earlier on at his school, and later on at Wits opened his eyes to another dimension in flying aircrafts.
He got to learn about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) which is what drones are called. That ignited his burning desire to become a drone expert. Being an engineer and one who never gives up on his dream, propelled him into pole position for future opportunities. He was excited to get the job and credits his mother’s love and her constant gentle push throughout his life, for his ability to triumph over failures and achieve his success.
Mthethwa appreciated that he would now be able to help his mother and complete his aeronautical studies. His parting shot and advice to fellow hustlers after he got the job is, Pressa Phusha Phanda (Press on; Push on; and Hustle - i.e. put in the work and find opportunities), which is the tag line for a popular SABC TV programme iSpani (South African township slang for A Job / The Job), which documents career opportunities for youth.
In an article in 2017, Wits discussed its collaboration with visiting researcher Dr Kuru Pillay in documenting the advent of the digital market economy uncertainties and regulation, smartphone software roles in first aid, actions to devote efforts to stop violence against children, and the required use of drones in land-mapping.
We care for the crops we live on, and use drones to monitor the health of vegetation for our sustainability. Drones help us deliver various kinds of aid and nourishment to remote living areas separated from sources of sustenance. Drones remind us that our beautiful earth impacts on us in the same way we impact the environment.
In its article in June 2018, Wits published how its BSc aeronautical engineering marvel and MSc engineering alumnus Matthew Whalley founded a cutting-edge drone company Passerine Aircraft Corporation in 2017 through the funder of early stage start-ups Y-Combination. He remembers his proudest moment as being accepted by Y-Combination, the financing patron that uses a new age funding model.
His invention along with his team of experts is the Passerine Aircraft, which takes its lessons from nature, and uses it to give back to humanity, in a manner that respects nature. In its respectful symbiotic gesture to nature, the Passerine Aircraft drone-and-bird inspired design, is also poised to inject much needed fuel into the South African and larger African economy, through this innovative and cost-efficiency driven technology accomplishment.
The Passerine has legs to push it up into flight like a bird, and helicopter like functionalities which are made even more economical by the low payload leveraged in drone design. Speaking of his part in the Wits Flying Donkey Challenge, Whalley recalls how this got him inspired to seek a drone design that by definition was as small as possible but could carry large cargo. Therein lay the birth of an idea that is now the Passerine Aircraft, at a fraction of the cost of conventional aircraft.
Whalley looks up to respectable figures in and around his life, which is where he draws inspiration from, namely Kelly Johnson and Burt Rutan for not following the beaten path in design, his parents setting the path for him and his dad for his problem-solving methods as well as Nelson Mandela and people who show generosity for ploughing back into communities and turning the world into a better place for all. His dream is to see his company creating massive and positive impact as a multimillion dollar giant. Whalley advises implied humility in students, indicating the requirement to always be learning and taking cognisance of what has already been achieved by others before you.
In its article of October 2016 - Libby Lunstrum and Patrick Bond, Wits draws attention to a serious pitfall of only looking at militarized solutions to anti-poaching. Stating that besides drones and military trained rhino anti-poaching security personnel in high demand in nature conservation parks, more socially responsible methods should be employed such as reducing demand for the lucrative rhino horn business, local community involvement, naming and shaming, economic sanctions, addressing global inequality as the root of poverty, which has in turn lead to poaching as a viable sustenance seeking method, and non-violent protests as historically proven means to successfully reducing poaching.
In a celebration of Youth Month, Wits has added an article from the Aeronautical Society of South Africa (AeSSA), which was a gesture of honour to their new Council member Jyotika Singh, an associate lecturer at the Wits School of Mechanical, Industrial & Aeronautical Engineering. The honour is part of AeSSA’s Council drive for youth engagement and empowerment.
Jyo as she is affectionately called, is also concluding her MSc engineering degree looking at composites research, and would be presenting her work at the International Conference for Composites Structures in Bologna in September 2018.
She is a youth of many talents, as she is also quite musical and expertly plays a piano. In addition, Jyo is close to completing her Private Pilot License (PPL) in order to be able to fly recreationally in her spare time.
She dubs herself to be a drone enthusiast and is planning to open a company for agricultural drone use as she likes the application of the drone technology in the space.
Jyo is intent on pursuing a PhD at the Wits School of Mechanical, Industrial & Aeronautical Engineering, with her topic a secret that she will reveal in time.
She reveres her father Dr Victor Singh, an accomplished Johannesburg cardiologist, for encouraging her to follow her passion for aeronautics. Himself a holder a commercial pilot license, he also flies recreationally. The tradition in the Singh family has always been studying and practicing medicine. However, he and Jyo have added onto their superb family resume’, their devotion to aviation.
Jyo loves to travel, with an itinerary to visit the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2018 in Wisconsin, US, in July.
In their library, Wits has articles and journals about drones from various sources. One is the International Journal of Remote Sensing downloaded by Wits in 2017 - S. N. Longmore, R. P. Collins, S. Pfeifer, S. E. Fox, M. Mulero-Pázmány, F. Bezombes, A. Goodwin, M. De Juan Ovelar, J. H. Knapen & S. A. Wich., which addresses a thermal infra-red camera and software pipeline test that leverages freely available astronomical source-sensing software as well as drone aerial thermal video footage together with machine learning, which were used to reliably sense the presence of, and the differences between human thermal imagery and that of animals by way of discerning thermal body density and spatial distribution of one as opposed to the other.
The ultimate purpose was to then apply the process in conservation areas to determine the presence and levels of endangered animals, as well as establish safety of animal species against poaching in those areas.
Wits has also published an info-graph about carbon nano-tubing as the building block of the strongest, lightest, safest, most conductive and most malleable material currently known. With applications in aviation such as in drone material production, energy as well as electronics such as computer screens and envisaged bullet-proof wearable material, nano-tubing, puts on a bright future with myriad valuable application. Save that it is said to make for a very noisy environment if it goes mainstream, its positive value is still huge and incalculable.
As the only university that offers the only accredited undergraduate Aeronautical Engineering degree in Africa, Wits rightly prides itself as having produced internationally valued graduates who have gotten work access at international companies and acclaimed aeronautical programs. Rolls Royce Aero Engines snapped up Wits alumnus Justin Mills, Airbus Industrie brought on board Byron Mansfield and Arne Schwarck, and NASA scooped up Prinal Naidoo. The remarkable graduate Matthew Whalley also started his own company with a most innovative drone design and application.
As possibly the only provider of the undergraduate aircraft design degree in the Southern Hemisphere, Wits acknowledges the presence of other accredited degrees in the Aeronautical field, with the notable difference being that the Wits degree covers aircraft design while the others only teach aerodynamics, or structures, and other subsets of the full ambit of the Wits degree.
The Wits Mining Institute (WMI) has published a newsletter in its vision for 21st century mining, to identify gadgets proved useful above ground, that can be innovated upon through modifications enabling them to work underground. Drone technology is identifiable as one such technology. In its first issue, the WMI lists notable research projects that seek to leverage envisaged technologies that would be applied in the mining sector.
Drones are life changing in every area of life. This realisation is evidenced by the way we interact with nature and the environment, and the way the environment affects us. On land and water, as well as in the air, drones are becoming an intertwined part of our lives. We take drones outdoors to enjoy flying them with friends and family, and we use drones to take pictures of the skies, mountain trails, and the marvels of hidden beaches nestled amongst caves and dense forests. We deliver parcels using drones, and we deliver laboratory test-results to assist in health care.
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