The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) says it is on track with the finalisation of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) regulations, which are set to be put in place by March next year, and has denied that it is struggling to formulate these new rules.
Until regulations have been put in place governing the use of UAVs, anyone operating a UAV could face a R50 000 fine or up to ten years in prison, or both, according to the SACAA. In April this year the Authority said it was set to clamp down on the illegal flying, in civil airspace, of unmanned aircraft, with heavy fines for those who break the law.
UAVs operating on private land or restricted airspace also do not comply with SACAA requirements and are therefore also illegal to operate.
However, people flying UAVs in South Africa cannot be fined by the SACAA because although flying UAVs is illegal, there are no laws in place to be broken, according to Hennie Kieser, director and chairman of the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of South Africa (CUAASA).
“It should be noted that the SACAA has not granted any approval to any entity or individual, due to the significant and real safety and security risks presented by this new sector of aviation. As such, whilst it is a fact that currently there are no specific regulations which govern RPAS [Remotely Piloted Aerial System] authorisations; regulation 91.01.10 of the Civil Aviation Regulations, 2011, prohibits any person through an act or omission to endanger the safety of an aircraft, any person or property. The SACAA is obligated to take enforcement action against any one disregarding the said part of the regulations,” the SACAA said.
“Notwithstanding, the SACAA has made considerable progress in terms of drafting regulations for UAS [Unmanned Aerial Systems] and as such is on track for the 2015 promulgations.”
UAVs can be flown indoors, however, as “the indoor operations of UAS are outside the mandate of SACAA since ‘indoors’ is not classified as airspace”.
Radio controlled/model aircraft are a different matter: “If the aircraft is solely used for sport or recreational purposes, the Director of Civil Aviation (DCA) has designated an external organisation to oversee this activities [sic]. The designated organisation is the Recreation Aviation Administration South Africa (RAASA),” the SACAA said.
“Unmanned aircraft systems are relatively a new component of the civil aviation framework, one which the SACAA, together with other regulators worldwide and under the guidance of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, are working to understand, define and ultimately integrate in to the civil aviation sector. As such, the process of developing policies, procedures, regulations and associated standards in order to certify and subsequently authorise operation of UAS is currently in progress,” said the Director of Civil Aviation, Poppy Khoza.
As part of this process, last month the SACAA hosted a meeting on the use of UAVs, which was attended by several hundred people. Kieser said the SACAA was struggling to come up with adequate regulations and had proposed unfeasible possibilities like requiring UAV operators to have commercial pilot licenses.
However, Phindiwe Gwebu, Senior Manager, Corporate Communications and Marketing at the SACAA, denied that the SACAA was struggling to formulate regulations.
“No-one has the perfect answer yet. People have some answers,” Kieser said, pointing out that countries around the world are having trouble establishing UAV regulations, with most countries taking different approaches, such as France giving flight permission on a case-by-case basis.
Regulations in the United States have been controversial due to the problem of classifying UAVs and model aircraft. Kieser said it was necessary to categorise UAVs, perhaps by kinetic energy rather than size and weight, as there are hundreds of different types of UAVs from small helicopters that fit into the palm of one’s hand to UAVs with wingspans as large as jet airliners, such as the Global Hawk.
“UAVs are a disruptive technology,” like the Internet and cellphones, Kieser said, especially as UAVs are becoming easier to fly – many can be flown from a smartphone. As a result they are here to stay and will only grow in popularity. For instance Kieser, also the director of surveillance company Desert Wolf, estimates demand for his Skunk multi-purpose UAV to be thousands of units a month.
Kieser pointed out that there are many people still flying UAVs in South Africa, such as those in the mining and farming industries that need to carry out tasks like stockpile monitoring and stock counting. He said the SACAA can’t prosecute such users because they have no manpower and it is not clear what users would be charged with.
CUAASA was formally started on January 1 and has seventy signed and paid up members. However, Kieser said there are between four and five hundred UAV operators in South Africa but most of them did not want to join CUAASA out of fear of repercussions from the SACAA.