It takes more than a good idea for an innovation to be successful. It is often a confluence of timing, money, a problem in need of a solution and no small amount of luck.
South Africa (SA) has a long history of innovation and a knack for tapping into a global need. It can be difficult, not to mention expensive, to monitor the SA landscape from the ground. In many cases, it is impossible to keep an eye on the 1.2-million square kilometres, which has led local innovators to devise ways to use space technologies to monitor SA’s resources and infrastructure. It turns out that other countries and international companies have similar problems. Here are some of the local innovations that have found traction on the international stage.
CoroCam: seeing invisible faults
Faults on electricity lines cost power utilities around the world billions of dollars. SA is no exception. There are tens of thousands of kilometres of transmission lines cross-crossing the country. For example, between Cape Town and power stations in the north of the country, there are about 28,000km of high-voltage transmission lines. Line faults can cost Eskom hundreds of thousands of Rand to fix and that is before the damage faults can cause to substations and the inconvenience for consumers at the end of the line.
But before disaster strikes and the power line short circuits, there are tell-tale signs of the trouble to come, such as coronal discharge. This discharge is an electrical leak, which can be caused by a fault or a problem with the insulator. But because the discharge is in the ultra-violet part of the light spectrum, it cannot be seen with the naked eye.
This is why researchers from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Eskom devised the CoroCam. Initially, the camera could only “see” the UV light at night and so spot this coronal discharge during specific times, but later versions were also able to record infrared and visible light.
The technology became so popular that in 2008 the CSIR licensed the CoroCAM range of products to UViRCO Technologies (Ultra-Violet, InfraRed Company), a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Council. New versions of the CoroCAM can now be mounted to unmanned aerial vehicles. “The UAV also allows for inspection from various directions of hard-to-reach overhead hardware,” the company says on its website. “Having the camera closer to the hardware under inspection allows the visible camera to capture more detailed images of the physical condition of the components.” Although they can cost tens of thousands of Euros, power utilities and other companies around the world think these products are worth the price. To date, the CoroCAM has been sold in more than 50 countries.
SA tech on the Chinese lunar satellite
A piece of SA technology is orbiting the moon at this moment. The Chinese lunar satellite, Queqiao, contains a tiny camera developed by the Space Advisory Company, based in Somerset West. The satellite is part of the Chang’e-4 mission to the far side of the moon and the camera is part of a scientific experiment that will probe the earliest ages of the universe.
The Space Advisory Company, which is part of larger local SCS Aerospace Group, usually specialises in cameras to take images of Earth from space, says product manager Francois Malan. “We were working on an optical payload for export clients and for this mission, we took away the image sensor and reprogrammed the hardware to process radio astronomy data, instead of image data.” SAC is responsible for four satellites and provided components for the payloads of six others currently in space.
Its current efforts are focused on satellite payloads, which are able to take images in a number of wavelengths, “one of which is being developed in partnership with South African industry funding and will be launched on our own nSight-2 satellite”, Malan says.
Advanced fire warning system to protect infrastructure and people
About 70% of SA’s ecosystems are fire-adapted, according to Working for Fire. These landscapes need fire to remain healthy. Unfortunately, this is at odds with the infrastructure, such as roads and power lines that run the length of the country, not to mention towns, villages, and cities.
Using both polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites, the CSIR’s Advanced Fire Warning System (Afis) is able to not only detect fires, but also predict when they might occur. While this is useful for SA and its companies, such as Eskom, which has Afis in its control centre, other global players also use Afis.
“This system provides fire managers across the globe with a unique tool to better manage the risk of wildfires close to high-value infrastructure and property, such as transmission grids or forest plantations,” the company says on its website. “AFIS provides users with fire prediction, detection, monitoring, alerting, planning, and reporting capabilities through the use of Earth observation satellites, weather forecast models and Information and Communication Technologies.”
It also allows companies, governments, or researchers to trawl historic data to understand how fires behaved and spread. For example, Afis data informed a report on what happened during the Knysna fires in 2017, which cost the SA insurance industry in the region of R2-billion.
The report “will go a long way in providing a better understanding of the conditions that prevailed prior to and during the Southern Cape fires”, writes insurance company, Santam, in the foreword. “More importantly, it also provides recommendations on how we can all use the lessons from this tragedy to militate against future fire risks.”
Monitoring SA’s unique fynbos in real-time
Locally-developed fynbos monitoring tool, EMMA, can produce near-real time reports on the state and changes in the Cape’s unique fynbos. This tool, whose name stands for Ecosystem Monitoring for Management Application, won the United Nations’s (UN) Data for Climate Action Challenge’s climate mitigation category award in 2017.
The Cape floral Region is the smallest of the globe’s six floral biomes, with a very high biodiversity. According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), a fifth of Africa’s flora is contained in this landscape, which takes up less than one percent of the continent’s land area. But this region, parts of which form a Unesco world heritage site, is under threat from drought, increased fires and invasive species.
“By detecting potential threats to the ecosystem in near-real time, our tool can inform the responses of conservation authorities, citizen scientists and policymakers while simultaneously collecting data for long-term ecological research,” says Jasper Slingsby, a biodiversity scientist at the SA Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) who headed up the project.
While these tools exist for forests such as the Global Forest Watch, which monitors forest health and deforestation in real time, most other ecosystems such as savannas do not have the same monitoring tools. This is the first time that the fynbos can be monitored in near-real time using large satellite-derived data sets.
EMMA is A collaboration between Slingsby; local company Ixio Analytics’ Glenn Moncrieff, a data scientist and the University at Buffalo’s bio-ecologist, Adam Wilson in the United States.