Robots in the sky! Drone regulations in South Africa
In December 2013 there was a crash near the Koeberg power station. Eskom had to be shut down. A huge furore ensued with the police being called in to launch an official investigation and a safety officer was suspended. The cause of all the fuss? A drone.
This incident illustrates why South African Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has had to institute strict regulations around the use of unmanned aircraft.
The term drone is increasingly being thrown around in the media, but what is a drone exactly? A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or a remote piloted aerial system (RPAS) that flies by itself without any onboard passengers. It is controlled either through a preprogrammed flight plan or via remote control. Originally drones were only used by the military in situations where manned flight was considered too risky. Today the onboard cameras provide them with “eye in the sky” intel 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Drone technology has grown smarter and more versatile in recent years and these robots in the sky are now being used for all sorts of commercial purposes and have recently successfully delivered pizzas to skyscrapers in Mumbai! The availability of drones has birthed a large number of hobbyists who want to capture that incredible birds-eye view.
With the increase in the number of unmanned aircraft in our skies, safety has become a major concern for the CAA. According to CAA spokesperson Kabelo Ledwaba, drones must integrate with “the existing, and highly organised, manned aviation sector in a manner that will not present a risk to existing airspace users or citizens and property.”
Regulations for hobbyists
In 2015 the CAA introduced stringent regulations for the use of drones which need to be adhered to. If you are just flying a drone as a hobby you need to be aware of where their use is banned. You cannot fly a drone within 10km of an airport, 50m from a road and one can only be flown near buildings if you have the permission of the owners to fly there. Their height is restricted to no higher than the highest trees or buildings in the area and within a 300m lateral distance. Night flying for private drones is banned.
Licence for commercial use
For organisations or individuals intending to use drones for commercial purposes a remote pilot’s licence (RPL) is required. You’ll need to register your drone with the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) and provide the relevant documents like an operations manual and your RPL before you can use your drone for business purposes.
Requirements for getting licenced:
- For drones larger than 20kg and if you are needing to fly beyond visual line of sight, a class 4 medical exam is needed through a SACAA approved doctor.
- An English proficiency exam is only required if you do not have a matric or equivalent with English as a first language subject.
- A radio telephony licence is also required which comprises up to three exams depending on how far you want to fly the drone. The three types relate to your ability to see the drone you are piloting and are: Visual Line Of Sight (VLOS), Extended Visual Line Of Sight (EVLOS) and Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS). VLOS and EVLOS deal with seeing the drone with the naked eye and have written exams. To fly BVLOS requires special permission from the SACAA director.
- Beginners need to complete a two week theory course while accredited pilots need only attend the second week of the course.
- Once the theory course is completed a practical exam is performed and the rating depends on the type of drone you are aiming to fly: fixed-wing; multi-rotor or helicopter.