Drones take flight from Knysna

Knysna-based SteadiDrone is one of South Africa’s most impressive technological exports and this self-funded start-up is taking on the international drone market with great success. By Regardt van der Berg.

Duran de Villiers, right, with his wife Alexa

Duran de Villiers, right, with his wife Alexa

In 2012, Motion Pixel, a small media production company based in the picturesque coastal town of Knysna, wanted to offer its clients footage unattainable only from fancy camera rigs and remote control helicopters.

Owner Duran de Villiers, 29, discovered the technology he was after was not readily available. So, the technology enthusiast started toying with the idea of creating his own drone capable of lifting a camera so he could begin shooting events hosted in Knysna and the surrounding areas.

Fast-forward two years, and SteadiDrone, the company that emerged from this idea, is rapidly becoming one of South Africa’s most exciting technological exports. The company, self-funded by De Villiers and his wife Alexa, raked in R14m in turnover in its first financial year in 2013. With still zero investment from outside investors, De Villiers says SteadiDrone in 2014 will “double and maybe triple” its sales over last year.

“I started to design and develop our first drone, which I conceptualised and built myself,” he tells TechCentral. “I immediately fell in love with the technology and it kind of just snowballed from there.”

Within three months, SteadiDrone had its first unit available for sale and within a year De Villiers transformed his media production company into a drone manufacturer. SteadiDrone now has dealerships in South America, North America, Canada, the UK, most of Europe, the United Arab Emirates and Australia.

“I taught myself everything I needed to know about the technology,” he says. “Back then, the technology was still very new and very experimental. It was a learning curve, but I’ve had a knack for electronics from a young age so it came naturally.”

De Villiers downloaded a trial version of AutoCAD, the computer-aided design software, and started “messing around” with product design.

Watch SteadiDrone’s QU4D in action (via YouTube):

Putting together his first drone required him to solder the printed circuit board, code the program to operate the drone, and tweak the firmware it uses. SteadiDrone now has a team of 11 people.

The company specialises in kits that users assemble and fly.

Watch video footage taken using the QU4D and a GoPro HD3 (via YouTube):

The drones were originally targeted at aerial video and photography but buyers have found other uses for them. They’ve been used in a number of television and movie productions, including ones made by the BBC. Even the US Air Force uses the drones to chase birds from runways. And the World Bank uses them to map land in 3D by attaching special hardware to the drones where most users place the camera.

SteadiDrone has three models, ranging from US$500 to $15 000. The main differences between the models are the flight time and the payload that the drones are able to carry.

International interest
De Villiers has had interest from international companies wanting to invest in SteadiDrone, even some which have wanted to buy the business, but he says he knows its potential and is reluctant to do a deal too soon. “We are looking at investments with an open mind.”

About nine in 10 drones sold are to international customers, with 60% coming from the US. Howevr, sales in South Africa have picked up this year, De Villiers says.

SteadiDrone QU4D quadcopter

SteadiDrone’s QU4D quadcopter retails for $2 000

The biggest challenge was building a product that works and getting it through various stages of research and development. Today, he says, his bigger challenge is marketing.

SteadiDrone sources most of its raw materials from overseas, but these are cut and assembled in Knysna.

“SteadiDrone has some exciting stuff in the pipeline,” says De Villiers. “We are working with industry partners and our goal is to be one of the key civilian drone manufacturers in the world.”

The company expects to launch a new mid-sized drone in the next few weeks that is designed to carry a wider range of cameras and will appeal to a much broader audience, he says.  — © 2014 NewsCentral Media

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  • mikeG

    and now drones are banned. sorry for you

  • James Rodden

    Congradulations to the South African entrepreneur . After buying mine last year it’s now obsolete . His collegue informed me that it happens all the time with cell phones etc etc .and gave me the apple scenario …. Really?? I should have mentioned that apple products normally still work even although they have another updated model… ( my iPhone 4 still works ..) The fantastic gimbal that they were testing and ranting on about last year also was a new state of the art gimbal so I bought it ( yes yes I know ) a mug born all the time . The gimbal now ? Yup… Obsolete . The new one has a gimbal similar to the one I have but a more ‘updated’ one. That’s probably because the standard one that came with mine never worked from day one and that’s why I bought their new fantastic one. … If they were upfront with me I would have waited ….. Does he care ? probably not. Just remember my friend who is financing your lifestyle now and when you aspire to be the Steve jobs of the drone world remember also what made apple successful …. Customer service . I couldn’t even get parts for mine in the UK. Now I’m back in the USA I’ll look into other options …. Buyer beware. Ask before he ‘updates ‘ to his steadidrone 4 next year … .? And thank you for waiving the fee to send a piece of orange Velcro ( battery securing tape ) to the uk and wanting to charge $30 as the one provided with the drone snapped. ( not available in the uk )

  • James Ferguson

    Definetly the worst piece of crap one can buy. Besides. Duran offers a great deal of bs. Once Drones get messed up. No one handles the problem and you will only hear excuses. He abandoned all this dealers. Not respected contracts he had. Drones fall apart. Made out of plastic. Definetly more convinient in price but they wont last a month. The guys is too full of himself to realize he is selling crap. Which he has not tested at all.

  • Ivo Vegter

    I thought so too, but it turns out some reporter didn’t do their homework before filing their story. They never were permitted, except under non-commercial model aircraft regulations. New civil aviation regulations, due next year, will explicitly cover “unmanned aircraft systems”. Hopefully, they will allow commercial use, such as filming, ahem, commercials, and lift some other key restrictions, such as line-of-sight operation, night flying and crossing public land such as roads.

  • Greg Mahlknecht

    The article says they export 90% of their stuff, so they’ll be OK. Just have to do clandestine testing :) Online gambling isn’t legal in ZA, but it hasn’t stopped a local company becoming the biggest player in online gambling software in the world.

  • Davebee

    Good to hear these drones are so effective…now all we need is for the various Metro’s to get cracking and use them to seek out the MILLIONS of illegal connections all over SA and immediately remove those IC’s from the PAYING grid!
    Roger and out.

  • Duran De Villiers

    two negative comments, awesome, hundreds of happy clients worldwide, awesome :) ‘Reader’s beware’ alwasy two sides to a comment/story/business etc

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