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Feature: South African UAV regulations moving forward

A Spylite UAV.South Africa is set to have its new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) regulations approved in April as the SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) moves forward with efforts to regulate UAVs flying in South African airspace.

Draft regulations were published as a white paper in December and open to public comment until January 5. This week the SACAA will review comments and then make necessary changes. Hennie Kieser, director and chairman of the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of South Africa (CUAASA), told defenceWeb that the regulations will be finalised by the end of January and will then be taken to Transport Minister Dipuo Peters. Kieser hopes the regulations will be law by the end of April, allowing people to go to the Air Services Licensing Council (ASLC) and SACAA to get their UAV licenses.

Kieser said that in theory it’s possible for people to be flying with the first licenses in May but he is concerned that the first applications reaching the ASLC will encounter problems and it may only be towards the end of the year that the first pilots will legally be allowed to fly.

The SACAA set March 2015 as the deadline for new regulations to come into effect. At the moment there are no regulations governing the use of remotely piloted aircraft in South Africa, resulting in UAVs being prohibited from flying. As a result, Kieser estimates that commercial UAV operators have lost 50-60% of their revenue since the prohibition. The new regulations do not necessarily affect hobbyists.

The rules

The draft regulations would require aircraft to be licensed and registered and pilots/operators to undergo training to qualify them to fly the aircraft. Someone would only be able to fly a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) if they have an RPA Pilot License, an RPA Operator Certificate, a certificate of RPA registration and an RPA Letter of Approval.

Importantly, RPAs will be classified according to their mass, kinetic energy and type of operation (line of sight, beyond line of sight etc.), with ten classes ranging from Class 1A to Class 5 and with masses ranging from less than 1.5 kg to greater than 150 kg.

The draft regulations apply to class 1 and 2 RPAs (up to 120 kg). Private operations of RPAs will be conducted only in restricted visual line of sight with a Class 1A or 1B RPA (up to 7 kg). However, operating a UAV as a hobbyist falls under different regulations.

The draft regulations stipulate that an RPA can only be operated in South Africa with an RPA Letter of Approval (RLA) issued by the South African Civil Aviation Authority, which is in effect a license valid for one year. In addition, RPAs would need to have a registration certificate, which would give them South African nationality.

Pilot license

Someone would only be able to pilot an RPA once in possession of a Remote Pilot License (RPL) in one of three categories: RPL (A) – Aeroplane Remote Pilot License; RPL (H) – Helicopter Remote Pilot License; and RPL (MR) – Multirotor Remote Pilot License. Several ratings are available including visual line of sight operations (VLOS), extended visual line of sight operations (E-VLOS) and beyond visual line of sight operations (B-VLOS).

The License would test things like air law, meteorology, navigation, aerodynamics, propulsion, flight control, batteries etc. Flight training can be a combination of simulator and real aircraft training and would cover things like aircraft inspection, systems checks, flight control/manoeuvres, takeoff, landing etc.

To apply for a license, an applicant would need to be older than 18, be medically fit, hold a restricted aeronautical radio license, be proficient in English, pass a theory exam, pass a skill test and where required, have completed flight training. Once granted, the RPL would only be valid for two years before a revalidation check would be needed for renewal.

RPA pilots would be required to have a functioning airband radio and, using the registration of the RPA as a call sign, make the required radio calls indicating the altitude, location and intended operation of the RPA at required intervals to ensure separation from other aircraft.

Once flying an RPA, a pilot would be required to have a logbook to record flight details and would not be allowed to have a blood alcohol level greater than .02 grams/100 ml or consume alcohol or drugs on duty.

Flying an RPA

For commercial, corporate and non-profit flight operations, an operator would be required to have an RPA Operator Certificate (ROC - valid for 12 months) or air services license, which can only be granted if the operator has a registered aircraft, an operations manual and an RLA. ROC holders would have background and criminal record checks conducted and would have to have third party insurance.

For private use, RPAs would only be flown in restricted visual line of sight (within 500 metres of the pilot) and over property the pilot owns or has permission to operate over.

With regard to operating an RPA, under the draft regulations an aircraft would only be operated in controlled airspace by a holder of an ROC or if the RPA is flown in visual meteorological conditions in an air traffic zone (ATZ) and controlled traffic region (CTR) below 400 feet. RPAs intended for operations within an ATZ or CTR would have to be fitted with a mode C or S transponder, altimeter, strobe light/s and navigation lights.

Various rules have been proposed regarding the safe flight of RPAs, such as prohibiting RPAs from carrying cargo, towing other aircraft, performing aerobatics, being flown in formation/swarm or being flown above or near a nuclear power plant, prison, police station, crime scene, court, national key point or strategic installation.

For beyond visual line of sight operations, an RPA would only be allowed to fly in visual meteorological conditions below 400 ft above ground level, unless otherwise approved. An RPA would only be flown at night in restricted visual line of sight operations.

RPAs would not be allowed to fly directly overhead people or closer than a distance of 50 m laterally to them unless the operator has special permission (or the person being overflown is the operator) or the people are being controlled by the operator. With regard to buildings, an RPA would only be flown further than 50 m laterally from a building (unless permission is obtained from the building’s owner). RPAs would not be allowed to fly over public roads or closer than 50 metres to a public road unless care is taken that no damage will be caused if the RPA loses control.

Also under the proposed regulations, RPAs could only be sold to over-18s and if the buyer has been notified of SACAA requirements.

Implementation issues

While South Africa is making headway regarding regulating UAVs, there are concerns over the implementation of rules and regulations. Kieser told defenceWeb that it will be very difficult to train UAV pilots as training schools do not exist and that this is also a problem because of the hundreds of different UAV models on the market. A better solution will be to get pilots to demonstrate their skills to inspectors. For example, if a pilot wanted to use a UAV for game counting, he would have to give a demonstration flight and if he wanted to use his aircraft for aerial photography he would have to perform another demonstration flight. However, Kieser said finding suitable inspectors was the biggest challenge.

A major concern with the implementation of the new regulations is staffing. The SACAA believes its staff can handle UAV applications, but Kieser believes a dedicated team will be necessary to process the hundreds of applications that will flood in as soon as the legislation becomes law. As a result, Kieser thinks the first licenses may only be granted in the third quarter of this year.

“The next year is going to be tough but the benefit will outweigh the risk,” Kieser said. CUAASA will have monthly meetings with the SACAA to make any necessary changes to legislation as the system is rolled out. Kieser also hopes the SACAA will change its mind and allow UAVs to carry cargo – they are presently forbidden from doing so.

Commercial, hobbyist and park flyer pilots

It is important to note that the draft regulations only apply to operators who wish to fly their UAVs for commercial purposes. For anyone in South Africa with a UAV, there are three options to fly legally: one can apply for a license if pursuing commercial work (once the regulations are finalised); one can become a member of the South African Model Aircraft Association (SAMAA) if flying as a hobbyist; or one can fly as a ‘park flyer’.

SAMAA members are only allowed to fly at SAMAA airfields while park flyers can fly without belonging to SAMAA or getting special permission. According to Pierre Laubscher, the operations manager of the Recreational Aviation Administration of South Africa (RAASA), park flyers can only fly aircraft weighing less than 1 kg and using an open frequency band for control. Park flyers must not fly their aircraft higher than 150 feet, within 5 nautical miles of an airfield and their aircraft must remain within visual line of sight.

The draft regulations can be found here.

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