For a Stellenbosch startup, the sky’s the limit when it comes to developing new drone technology. RICHARD HOLMES meets the innovators behind Conzer Aeronautics.
I’m not sure what I was expecting exactly. A hangar with propellers spooling noisily up to speed? Men in flight suits and aviator shades? Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t an unassuming office block within the Techno Park development outside Stellenbosch. It might not fit the Top Gun image I had in mind, but from these offices a small team of passionate young engineers is blazing a bold new (con)trail in the world of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Although only registered as a company in 2022, Conzer Aeronautics has its roots on the campus of Stellenbosch University, where co-founder Reynard Heath completed his Masters in Mechanical Engineering. Initially designing drones specific to anti-poaching operations, his research led him into refining their design according to an array of specific requirements. His work in both fixed-wing and VTOL (Vertical Take-off and Landing) aircraft eventually led to the development of The Nighthawk, the remarkable unmanned aerial vehicle that it’s hoped will cement Conzer Aeronautics as a local leader in drone innovation.
Joining Reynard at Conzer is Jacques Burger, a fellow graduate of the Mechanical Engineering Master’s programme, who brings financial acumen to the startup.
But the show’s real star is The Nighthawk, the first Conzer Aeronautics drone that combines existing hardware with proudly Stellenbosch software smarts.
The Nighthawk’s range allows it to cover effectively an area in excess of 70 000ha. For context, that’s larger than the entire Sabi Sand Game Reserve bordering the Kruger National Park. It’s a vast area to fly over, but with a top speed of 75km/h, The Nighthawk can cover enormous distances at speed and survey vast areas of the landscape.
Each drone is assembled in Stellenbosch from imported components, but it’s the software ecosystem behind the hardware that truly sets The Nighthawk apart. Using a pre-existing technology platform, the magic comes in the thousands of variables that have been trialled, tested and improved over years of development. From tweaking the propeller torque on take-off to fine-tuning the landing approach in high winds, they are adjustments largely invisible when done right, but potentially disastrous when wrong. From the outset the Conzer team chose to focus on selling the drones as a stand-alone product rather than offering the service of flying, so making the drone both efficient in the air and easy to fly was a key starting point. That informed the adoption of both VTOL and fixed-wing technology. After using the four wing rotors to ascend vertically for take-off, The Nighthawk automatically adjusts to transition into fixed-wing flight, combining both practicality and efficiency. In the air the drone can be piloted manually, but “the software ecosystem in The Nighthawk allows for the drone to fly autonomously according to a pre-set flight path,” explains Reynard.
What’s more, predictive technology is able to scan the terrain up to 2km ahead to determine whether there are obstacles in the flight path. “We’re a startup, and we don’t have a lot of money, so we don’t want to be crashing our prototypes!” says Jacques with a laugh.
On landing, The Nighthawk will automatically circle the landing zone to determine the wind speed and direction before reverting from fixed-wing to quadcopter mode to touch down safely.
But aside from The Nighthawk, Conzer has established itself as a research and development hub for drone development and applications.
“As we started talking to prospective clients, we discovered that there are a lot of people with specific ideas for drones but nobody to execute them. That’s when we shifted into a more R&D role as well,” says Jacques. “Many people have specific niche requirements that you’re simply not going to get with an off-the-shelf product. So we’re using The Nighthawk as a product, but also a proof of concept and a proof of competency in our ability to create whatever people need in both a hardware and a software environment.”
And the potential applications of this next generation of drone technology are myriad. Drones are already in use for urban crime-fighting as well as wilderness anti-poaching efforts, while search-and-rescue teams around the world – including in Cape Town – utilise them for quick deployment in search of missing persons. In Australia, they have proven effective for shark monitoring at beaches and for surf lifesaving. Using machine-learning and computer-vision models, The Nighthawk can even be ‘taught’ to identify specific items in flight, allowing for seamless tracking of people, animals and vehicles.
The team is also working on a design that will fit spray nozzles to the drone for the cleaning of solar panels. This is already being done in some parts of the world, but requires a highly skilled pilot.
“In our ecosystem, you could use LiDAR and different sensing methods for the drone to be able to do this automatically,” explains Reynard. “There’s still a feedback loop and an operator, but the drone would automate the task and do it much more efficiently.”
Crucially, The Nighthawk also allows for interchangeable payloads, meaning that a variety of cameras or sensing devices can be fitted depending on the flight mission. That could mean thermal imaging for mountain rescue through to LiDAR – an acronym for ‘Light Detection And Ranging’ – cameras for aerial surveys and biomass measurements. In the Cape Winelands, drones have already brought down the cost of solar radiation profiles, slope analysis and vegetation mapping, but their ability to fly autonomously can further streamline the process.
Those cameras – or payloads, as drone pilots call them – don’t come cheap, which led the team to develop another innovative solution for The Nighthawk. If the drone falls below a pre-set altitude, the payload automatically retracts into the airframe – made of impact-resistant EPO foam – to protect internal components. Likewise, below a certain altitude, the drone will automatically transition into quad-copter mode to allow for a safe landing.
What Conzer Aeronautics is doing is making it easier for people to fly more advanced drones to aid their core business. That could mean a farmer launching a drone with LiDAR technology and feeding the data obtained into next-gen tractors and cultivators, or a game reserve manager doing monthly tree surveys across vast expanses of bushveld.
There are even potential applications for carrying people and goods to remote locations. “With larger motors and more propellers, you could start using drones to carry heavy payloads, which can speed up building projects in remote areas,” suggests Reynard. “There are so many potential applications. What we’re really selling is the ecosystem of software and hardware that automates tasks using current drone technology,” adds Jacques.
For Conzer, the sky’s the limit, and this ambitious Stellenbosch startup is only too ready to take flight. V