After herding the cows off the field, it was all systems go. About a dozen or so South African drone enthusiasts gathered around to race, play and learn about flying machines at a demarcated zone in Bergvliet, just outside of Cape Town.
The event was the culmination of local makers initiative Curiosity Campus‘ first Drone Academy — a course that teaches budding unmanned aerial vehicle (or just UAV) geeks all about the trending technology.
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“We want to help satisfy South Africa’s curiosity about this new technology, and show them that it’s more accessible than they think,” Neil Bekker from Curiosity Campus explained.
As costs have gone down, and the tech become more advanced, an interest in drones have sky-rocketed over the past few years.
From DIY makers showing off natural beauties to Facebook’s solar-powered machines trying to beam internet to the world’s underserved, the technology has certainly unlocked a new field for creatives and engineers alike.
“It’s kind of like 3D printing,” Bekker said. “3D printing has existed for a long time but in the last two years it’s really captured the public’s imagination.”
The Drone Academy course carried a price tag of R8 500 and was mainly instructed by MIT graduate James Paterson from local drone company, Aerobotics.
From a hardware perspective, students learned how to put their machines together as well as programme them. Bekker stressed how accessible drones have become, given the right skills:
“We’ve got a couple of people here who’ve actually built their own drones. They’re not engineers. They’re not scientists. They’re normal people, doing other jobs, who’ve actually learned how to assemble their own working drones.”
By partnering with local online drone store Flying Robots, course participants were supplied with all the parts needed to build and fly a drone — from the radio and propellers to the motor and the battery.
“Drone Academy is set up by Curiosity Campus to teach guys to build a drone and fly one from scratch,” said Alan Ball, the founder of Flying Robots. “The main angle was to give the students something they can walk away with.”
Students also learned about the different applications for drones which stretch from curbing rhino poaching to overcoming obstacles in the mining and agricultural sectors.
Ball emphasised that while participants were taught about drones’ different use-cases, the course was squarely aimed at hobbyists and did not provide a commercial pilot license.
Queried about the recent UAV regulations imposed by the South African Civil Aviation Authority, Ball said that lot of people think it’s the right way to go.
“Some do get upset about it as the small man on the street who’s taking photos of property is not being catered for,” he noted. Ball added that companies like UAV Industries, however, are doing great work in this area, helping new entrants into the UAV market.
Only two students partook in the Drone Academy course, though Bekker is optimistic about the next one: “There’s already a scene. Today, we’re at Bergvliet and there are 15 other people racing drones furiously around a track.”
“We really want to introduce this technology to more people,” Bekker continued. “We start small. And hopefully, by the end of this year, there’ll be a lot more South Africans who know a lot about drones.”
Flying Robots will furthermore showcase drones at Maker Faire Cape Town and is calling for DIY geeks and pilots to join the expo 21 to 23 August.