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Industry bemoans CAA’s slow progress on UAVs

A DJI Phantom UAV.The slow process of granting companies and pilots permission to commercially operate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in South Africa is causing a large number of pilots to fly illegally, the industry has cautioned.

According to Hennie Kieser, founding President of the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of South Africa (CUAASA), there are around 600 certified remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs/drones) in South Africa and more than 50 000 flying illegally. This means the regulator needs “a wakeup call,” he said.

Kieser pointed out that South Africa was a world leader in the development and use of UAVs and still has world leading capabilities, with the UAV sector growing faster than the regulator can handle. For instance, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) has more than 300 applications but has only processed 18 of these in over two years. He said the SACAA does not allow beyond line of sight flights or night flights. “They don’t understand the technology.”

As a result of onerous regulations, many South African companies are selling their products and conducting training overseas, Kieser said. “Our biggest challenge…is that a lot of people want to get into industry but two years down the line people haven’t even heard from the regulator.”

South Africa was one of the pioneers of UAV regulations, but grounded all UAVs until the legislation was approved, hurting the industry. However, Kieser cautioned that legislation is falling behind technology. “South Africa was in front but if we don’t rewrite legislation monthly we will be behind schedule. Technology changes daily.”

Dean Polley, President of CUAASA, said there needs to be a closer relationship between industry and government. “It is time government becomes aware of the challenges this industry is facing. We see pressure being put on the regulator by government. The regulator needs to adapt very quickly. This technology is advancing at such a tremendous pace it’s difficult to keep up. We’re looking at life cycles of eleven months.”

Kieser expressed the concern that we may be “so far behind we can’t catch up.” He said it was the SACAA’s fault that the industry is being held back, as they came out of the traditional aviation industry landscape and are applying manned principles to unmanned aviation, including onerous and expensive training. “You can’t charge R45 000 to train a drone pilot. Maybe R4 000,” he said.

According to the industry, SA is the only country in the world that requires UAV operators to obtain an Air Services License to run a UAV business. In other countries this type of license is only required for manned commercial operations. Firms wishing to operate in the emerging commercial UAV sector have complained about the 18-24 months wait to obtain licensing but the SACAA recently said it was trying to reduce waiting time to 90 days.

Dr Roelof Botha, an economist who was commissioned by the UAV industry to assess its economic impact, says regulators are holding back growth. With a more subtle approach by the SACAA, the industry, “could at least double in size every year over the next ten years or even undergo exponential growth, albeit off a low base,” Botha said.

On the basis of an industry survey and an assessment of the industry’s wider impact, Botha estimates that total industry turnover in 2017 will could be more than R2 billion. Even at its present constrained size the aviation industry makes a substantial contribution to tax revenue and employs over 24 500 in formal jobs and nearly 10 000 in informal jobs. Botha said the aim should be to allow SA’s UAV industry to emerge as a hub of excellence in Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the South African Civil Aviation Authority’s (SACAA’s) Albert Msithini, there are many operational demands on the SACAA, making it difficult to attend to UAV matters, and this has been compounded by the recent ICAO audit, restructuring and the departure of personnel. Msithini admitted that the SACAA had been “overtaken by events” and that the industry has grown very fast.

However, he said, “we are really going to be moving now,” and that the SACAA has recruited more inspectors. He hopes to get five inspectors in 2018 who are dedicated to UAVs. He said the SACAA is now pushing UAV regulations from the top, whereas before it was driven from the bottom.

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