Unmanned aviation can boost GDP and provide work

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South Africa’s fledgling unmanned aviation sector could find itself well and truly grounded in a morass of regulations even before it demonstrates that the industry can add close to half a billion Rand to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

This is the potential value add identified by economist Dr Roelof Botha, in a study commissioned by the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of Southern Africa (CUAASA).

He interviewed Association members, obtained information from Quantec Data and Stats SA for the study which CUASSA executive member Hennie Kieser said “sadly” excluded many drone/UAV/RPA operators already working in South Africa.
“They do not want to be identified because they are actually operating illegally if the letter and intent of the SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) regulations on remotely piloted aircraft are applied. At the same time these operators are providing a service they are being paid for by companies in fields as diverse and mining and agriculture and want to ensure more work in the future,” he said.

Botha’s research brought to light that South Africa’s unmanned aviation sector can provide direct employment to just over two thousand people with a further 1,252 employed indirectly. This sector of the aviation industry can boost the national tax income by R74 million, R40 million of it from personal tax and the balance from company tax. This is at a time when tax collection is down by around R2 billion according to SA Revenue Services.

Estimates are there are at least 400 people and/or companies operating UAVs in South Africa at present and when CUAASA membership in the region of 120 is taken into account it’s clear they prefer anonymity allowing them to continue working for clients they have and are providing valuable services to.

These range from regular scanning of coal stockpiles through to monitoring game and livestock movement, providing footage for the film and video sectors, monitoring cable and power lines as well as helping to curb poaching (wildlife) and rustling (livestock).

Indications are the SACAA has to date registered 73 unmanned aerial vehicles. This is since July 1 when flight safety regulations for what the Authority is calling remotely piloted aircraft (RPAS) came into effect. They all carry the prefix ZT – the first one was registered as ZT-TAA while number 73 was registered ZT-TDC.

Last month the SACAA issued the first pilot’s licence for RPAS, to Nicole Swart, making her the first person to receive such a licence in South Africa, the continent, and most parts of the world according to the SACAA.

She was handed the licence by the Director of Civil Aviation, Poppy Khoza, two weeks after remotely RPAS were integrated into the South African civil aviation airspace, following the introduction of relevant regulations at the start of July.

South Africa is one of a handful of countries around the world to have introduced comprehensive regulations to guide RPAS operations.



Until UAV pilots and commercial operators are licensed, they face a R50 000 fine if caught flying. At the moment there are several ways to fly UAVs. For recreational purposes, a pilot is required to join the South African Model Aircraft Association and fly from their airfields. A grey area is park flyers, who are allowed to fly electric powered UAVs under 2 kg from parks and fields, provided local authorities allow it. For commercial purposes, pilots have to follow the new Part 101 rules implemented by SACAA.