Local flight magazine editor notified with protection order over drone flights


Athol Franz, the editor of local magazine African Pilot, has been served with a protection order after his neighbours complained of being harassed by a drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), he flew over their properties.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) of South Africa on 23 February reported that Franz had been served with a protection order on 11 January in the Randburg Magistrate’s Court to restrain him from harassing, communicating with or approaching within 100 metres of several of his neighbours at Kyalami Ridge Estate.

The application for the protection order (known in some circles as a restraining order) was brought after Franz allegedly flew his UAV over his neighbours’ houses and took photos of them.
“Complaints have also been made to the Civil Aviation Authority regarding Franz’s alleged contravention of several civil aviation regulations applicable to drones. Neighbours are also reportedly bringing further lawsuits regarding alleged insulting and defamatory behaviour by Franz,” AOPA reported. It added that “the current temporary protection order will be sought to be made permanent on 18 April 2017.”

In explaining the UAV flights, Franz stated on the AOPA Facebook page that he has been a board member of the estate in Kyalami for six years and chairman of the board for three and the flights were over a house that was apparently not built to plan. “The drone flying was undertaken prior to the [estate board] AGM so that I could present pictures of the developments on the estate including the parks and the front entrance building, which had undergone a considerable upgrade.”

In defending the flights, Franz said the regulations allow people to fly UAVs without a license as long as the aircraft is under 7 kg and the UAV is not being used for gain or commercial purposes. “The matter in my estate was to prepare overhead pictures of various projects that I presented to the community at the AGM in September 2016. This certainly was not for personal gain but done as a member of the board.”

On 27 February AOPA South Africa indicated that a second protection order was granted against Franz restraining him from harassing his neighbours or enlisting the help of others to do so. “A warrant for Franz’s arrest has been authorized, which is suspended subject to his compliance with the order.”
“We believe this matter to be of interest to the public in general, since drones and the regulation thereof are fairly new and we are not aware of other instances where the use of drones have come to the attention of the courts other than this instance,” AOPA SA said.

On 3 March Christine Brits, an estate agent at Homes of Distinction married to Franz, posted on the AOPA website that “The interim protection order and suspended warrant of arrest which was issued by the Randburg Magistrates Court on 28th February 2017…was set aside and dismissed by the Court on 3rd March 2017,” as the person who brought it did so on an urgent basis but failed to appear on 3 March for the matter to be heard. However, it is believed two protection orders are involved and the one regarding UAVs still stands and is to be heard in April.

Franz on 8 March told defenceWeb that he would be challenging the UAV laws with the South African Civil Aviation Authority as they were “stupid” and the UAV flight in September last year was carried out with the agreement of his neighbour. 

According to the SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), for private operation, UAVs may only be used for an individual’s personal and private purposes where there is no commercial outcome, interest or gain. In this case, they cannot be flown closer than 10 km from aerodromes, at night or in bad weather and need to weigh less than 7 kg. UAVs are not allowed to be operated within controlled, restricted or prohibited airspace and cannot be operated within 50 metres of a person, property or public road.

The issue of UAVs violating personal privacy is a topical one, especially with the prevalence of commercial UAVs around the world. Last month the SACAA cautioned against operators flying into other people’s properties without permission, or following individuals around. “We urge RPAS [remotely piloted aerial systems] owners and operators to respect the privacy of others,” the SACAA said.

Operators who disobey SACAA regulations face a ten year prison sentence, R50 000 fine, or both. The SACAA estimates that two or three out of every four registered and licensed UAV pilots are flying illegally.
“Although these aircraft are much smaller and lighter than existing manned aircraft, their presence in the skies still present a significant risk to other airspace users, persons, and property on the ground. A collision of an RPAS and a helicopter or a jet full of passengers could lead to a catastrophic disaster,” said Simon Segwabe, head of Aviation Safety Operations at the SACAA.

He said there have been reports of drones flying over private property, and following people around, which is illegal under the regulations passed in 2015 and is an invasion of privacy.

SACAA UAV regulations stipulate that UAVs are not 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 can only be flown further than 50 m laterally from a building (unless permission is obtained from the building’s owner).

UAVs can only be flown when the aircraft is registered with the SACAA and has been issued with a letter of approval. In addition, the pilot needs a valid remote pilot’s licence. These regulations only apply to operators who wish to fly their UAVs for commercial purposes.

For anyone in South Africa with a UAV, they have to apply for a license if pursuing commercial work, but one can become a member of the South African Model Aircraft Association (SAMAA) if flying as a hobbyist. SAMAA members are only allowed to fly at SAMAA airfields.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of licensed UAVs in South Africa. The SACAA last month said in 2016, the number of registered UAVs has more than doubled, going from 216 in January 2016, to 465 in January 2017. The number of pilot licences issued also increased from 33 to 368 in the same period.

Until July 2015, there were no laws in place in SA, which meant the flying of any unmanned aircraft was illegal. New stringent regulations were set up in response to the growing demand to regulate the sector so SA could take full advantage of the emerging technology.
* This article has been updated with comment from Franz and to clarify South African UAV regulations.