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The use of UAVs (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) has ruled the headlines over the last few years. These flying machines, also known as drones, have captured the imagination of Silicon Valley geeks and anti-NSA activists paranoid about their privacy, and caused the US military some controversy.
Fitted with a camera such as a GoPro, the media has also started using UAVs in innovative ways — getting top-view shots of chaotic protests, for example. Friendlier examples of the use of UAVs include capturing monkeys swinging about in forest trees in a panning motion for cutting-edge nature documentaries, capturing a surfer’s stunts in never-before-seen angles or simply private use — messing around with an expensive toy in your backyard.
One South African company that has taken advantage of the technology’s potential is SteadiDrone. What initially started out as a media production company has grown into a manufacturer of innovative drones with dealerships all over the world and booming revenues.
How SteadiDrone took off
SteadiDrone’s 29-year-old founder Duran De Villiers previously worked in TV production and professional photography, but found himself fascinated by the idea of having “cameras in the sky” without the need of a human pilot and decided to develop his own machines.
Helicopters are expensive and can only get so low to the ground while camera rigs can only go so high. “My background is in media production,” De Villiers says. “I saw the potential for flying cameras that can offer us, as a production company, an edge over our competitors by being able to shoot unique and creative aerial imagery just about anywhere. I fell in love with the technology and it’s very quickly changed our entire business over to an international manufacturer.”
SteadiDrone — which is based in the beautiful town of Knysna, South Africa — launched in 2012, and designs, manufactures and exports these advanced unmanned aerial systems or small multicopter drones. It now has dealerships in South America, North America, Canada, UK, most of Europe, UAE, Australia and South Africa.
The startup recently held a competition that encouraged fans to send in inspiring photos taken using the company’s drones and then post them on Facebook (take a look).
When asked how he hopes drone use will change the world, De Villiers simply says, “It already has.”
In only a few years, these devices have started becoming relatively affordable and making their way into the commercial market.
As Business Insider reports, “We estimate that 12% of an estimated US$98-billion in cumulative global spending on aerial drones over the next decade will be for commercial purposes.” That’s US$11.76-billion!
Apart from the notorious military uses for UAVs, we’ve seen drones used to protect wildlife in Kenya or being geared up to provide people in remote, underserved areas with access to the internet (eventually) using Facebook’s solar-powered drones.
De Villiers says that it’s hard to keep track of his company’s specific client base, but he has seen SteadiDrones being used in a number of ways — from beating Guinness World Records to chasing birds off US Air Force runways, and for many different TV products, films — and of course they are often privately hacked and modified.
“There are endless applications our systems are used for worldwide, from aerial photography to feature film making, security, wildlife conservation and many others,” he says.
Drones fly when you’re having fun…
SteadiDrone went from zero to making R14-million revenue in its first year. It’s self-funded by De Villiers and was chosen as the Step-Up Technology Innovation Competition winner in the ICT category last year.
The startup has received sponsorship of more than R100 000 and will be travelling to Milan, Italy, together with U-Start South Africa’s four other winners.
Shown in the video above, its most popular UAV model is the SteadiDrone QU4D. The QU4D is priced at US$2 000, while there is a cheaper US$500 model and a higher-end US$15 000 version.
When asked what makes these drones stand out, De Villiers says, “The gap our systems fill is a large market gap between cheap ‘toy’ drones and very expensive military type drones.”
All SteadiDrones can be modified on the website, outfitted with a selection of different controllers, motors, various batteries and so forth. Some of the key technical features that make them so popular include their advanced GPS navigation capabilities, GoPro compatibility and easy set up, with folding arms, programmable radio systems and general durability.
Another selling point is their stability, making them perfect for filming steady, uninterrupted shots. “Stability is mainly due to the advanced flight controller, GPS, and so forth,” explains De Villiers.
Building things in Africa?
One of the most under-served industries in South Africa has to be manufacturing — especially in the field of science and technology. But with the “privatised” tools currently on the market, such as 3D printers, the research and development process has become more accessible. You don’t necessarily need access to a manufacturing plant or a science lab to tinker and experiment with new technologies.
De Villiers does note that getting one’s hands on raw materials is difficult for a South African manufacturer, but says he relishes the challenge of creating his products:
“We import most of the raw items, but manufacturing, assembly, etc. is all done [in South Africa]. We have 3D printers and CNC equipment that we use for R&D, it’s a fairly straight forward process, but developing flying machines can get very technical… but that’s where the fun comes in!”