Wits student was driven by a desire to speed up a return to res during the lockdown in 2020, as home proved to be less than conducive as a remote learning environment.

A love for aerospace engineering, wanting to play his part in the fight against covid-19 and a need to leave an unconducive learning environment, is what led a 21-year-old aeronautical engineering student at Wits University to design thermal drone.

As part of third-year studies in 2020, Xolani Radebe was required to do a design course and that’s where he got the idea to design the drone. “What [students] are expected to do in this course is identify problems and ask ourselves questions to solve those problems, and after the lockdown happened I wanted to do this as my design project.

“[I designed the drone] to help with covid-19 screening but one of the main reasons why I actually did it was for me to try and get back to campus because I just couldn’t study at home. Things were not going well for me academically, I was missing classes and submissions,” Radebe told Wits Vuvuzela.

“There have been other people in the world who have done the same thing, which I wasn’t aware of at first, but this one was going to be 100% local,” he said.

One of the things that was going to be different about this drone was that instead of just using it to film, this drone would use a thermal camera to read the temperatures among groups of people.

“[My team and I] looked at the symptoms of covid and one of the symptoms was fever which includes high temperature. People with high temperatures at gatherings were going to be taken out of those places.

“Because the drone is coded I would like to modify the code so that it can fit any description I want such as complex security surveillance, crime surveillance and search and rescue, basically anything,” said Radebe.

However, due to a lack of funding the drone is not operational as a thermal drone yet, and Radebe has suspended work on it because the transition to online learning in 2020 proved so difficult that he failed.

“After failing [in 2020], I got excluded and had my bursary suspended. At the moment I’m solely focused on my academics and grateful that my bursary has been reinstated and I was able to get readmitted in Wits. Up until I finish my degree, I will be going to schools motivating [learners] under Aviation Development in Africa,” Radebe said.

Born and raised in Jabulani, Soweto by his grandmother, Radebe had not always wanted to be an engineer. He developed a love for engineering after he got to Letare Secondary School. Before that he says he did not have much “purpose and direction” for his future.

“My interest in engineering started when I attended a show called the African Aerospace and Defence (AAD) under the Youth Development Programme. Before that I was a naughty and disrespectful kid in school. There was a time I was getting 20s and 30s in my report card and this was when I was doing grade 9 and 10. After the show that’s when I decided I wanted to become a pilot or design airplanes. I chose to design airplanes,” said Radebe.

After attending the AAD show that’s when Radebe decided to focus more on his studies with the help of his teachers. “Most of my high school teachers were a big factor in me getting into Wits. They were motivating and helped me understand that I have the potential to make it and be great.

“One of my teachers at Letare Secondary helped me realise that I could be the one who changes the situation at home [where] no one had ever made it to university,” he said.

Radebe says he just wants to design airplane engines for the rest of his life. “If I don’t get to design fighter jets for the South African Air Force, the goal is to work for General Electric Aviation, one of the biggest engineering companies in the world.”

FEATURED IMAGE: Xolani Radebe with his temperature-screening drone. Photo: File