SA UAV industry frustrated by red tape


South Africa’s emerging unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone, industry is showing growing frustration with what many view as an overly rigid approach by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA).

Many UAV operators and those wanting to undergo certification insist that the South African economy could miss out on larger scale benefits of the technology

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 be more than R2 billion. Even at its present constrained size the 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.

Many wanting to enter into the industry are frustrated by the red tape at the SACAA. Under current regulations a Remote Pilot Operators Certificate, which costs around a minimum of R125 000 and about 18–24 months to obtain, is required by companies and individuals offering a commercial UAV service. 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.

In a presentation to the UAV Conference 2017 at Emperor’s Palace in Kempton Park last week the Manager of Unmanned Systems at the SACAA, Albert Msithini, did not deal with industry concerns about licensing procedures. The SACAA has admitted to staffing problems in dealing with the stream of recent applications.
“After two years the SACAA has only issued 14 Remote Operators Certificates. That is less than one every two months,” said Dean Polley, the President of the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of Southern Africa (CUAASA).

A Remote Pilots License can take around a month to obtain, but cannot be used for commercial purposes on its own. Certified UAV pilots must work under the auspices of operators. There are some 370 licensed UAV pilots in South Africa at present.

Due to SACAA regulations UAV developers find it extremely difficult to obtain permission to undertake test flights and have to resort to tests in cooperation with the South African Air Force.

Recreational flyers and those who restrict themselves to flying over their own properties do not require permission from the SACAA.

With the slow approval process, those in possession of such certificates are able to charge more than they could in a more competitive environment.

Leon Dillman, CEO of the Commercial Aviation Association of Southern Africa, to which CUAASA is affiliated, said, “The real problem is the process that needs to be followed and that the SACAA can’t handle the current volume of applications. There is no reason why operator licenses can’t be approved in seven days, rather than 18 months.”

He said his body is in talks with the SACAA and they are aware that they do not have enough people and are trying to resolve the issue. “Things are changing slowly,” he said.

Businesses attending the conference last week were considering whether they should use a UAV service provider or their own solutions. With improved software for data analysis and control of UAVs, there is now widespread awareness that this general purpose technology stands to substantially lower costs across a number or industries and raise productivity.

Interest in the use of UAVs is now well beyond that of filming and surveillance. At last week’s conference there was strong interest from the mining and agricultural industries and surveyors. SANParks, the government agency responsible for national parks, is looking into the use of UAVs to identify invasive alien vegetation.

In agriculture there is growing use of UAVs to deposit sterile insects over an infested area, assess the state of crops, irrigation, and the soil. The increased data can also help generate more accurate crop estimates.

Higher resolution cameras and smaller infrared sensors and improved software to measure temperature are widening the industrial applications of UAVs in inspection and surveillance. Transport roles for UAVs are increasing and they are now used to bring blood samples to laboratories from remote clinics.

Aviation authorities will have to adapt to a fast moving technology that will ultimately be integrated into civil aviation. Growing safety features such as the return to home facility, sense and avoid systems, and miniature transponders will improve safety. How to adapt to delivery and personal transport UAVs into air traffic control could become a new hurdle for regulators.

Regulators are faced with the prospect of a massive growth in the number of unregulated UAVs in the air. The big question is the extent to which commerce will ultimately force excessive regulations out of the way.