Cape Town - The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) estimates that for every registered and licensed remotely piloted aircraft taking to the skies in SA, there are two or three more doing so illegally.
A review by the regulator of the South African Aircraft Register over a 12-month period shows a dramatic increase in the number of registered remotely piloted aircraft systems, commonly known as drones, from 216 in January 2016, to 465 in January 2017.
Similarly, a comparison of statistics between January 2016 and January 2017 indicates an increase in the number of remote pilot’s licences issued, i.e. from 33 in the previous year to 368 in 2017.
While the SACAA says it expected this spike due to the obvious commercial prospects of the technology and equipment, its low cost and easy accessibility means that anyone can acquire and utilise these aircraft.
Remotely piloted aircraft systems are categorised as aircraft across the globe; hence authorities are eager to swiftly integrate these aircraft into the existing manned aviation sector and civil airspace, which is relatively safe, secure, and highly organised.
In May 2015 South Africa took the lead in formulating its own recommended standards and practices, ahead of global regulator ICAO - taking into consideration the country's unique aviation landscape.
SEE: SA signs new drone rules into law
The main concern says Simon Segwabe, head of Aviation Safety Operations at the SACAA, is that some RPAS owners may use these aircraft in a manner that contravenes civil aviation regulations and other laws".
“The main concern for regulators such as the SACAA is the increasing number of unregistered and unapproved RPAS operations that are taking to the skies illegally and are being potentially operated by unlicensed individuals. It is estimated that for every registered and licensed remotely piloted aircraft taking to the skies, there are two or three more doing so illegally,” Segwabe says.
According to Segwabe there are many RPAS enthusiasts and entrepreneurs who have none or limited knowledge of the aviation industry, and thus remain oblivious to the serious risks that they pose to other airspace users by not abiding by the applicable civil aviation regulations.
SEE: 12 Things you need to know about SA’s new drone rules
“The reality is that in most instances RPAS are made with consumer-grade electronics, with uncertified and often untraceable hardware and software. The failure rates of some of these aircraft are indeterminable, as there are currently no civil certification standards available anywhere in the world.
"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.”
According to the SACAA, there has been an increase in reports of invasion of privacy and it is urging RPAS owners and operators to familiarise themselves with the applicable civil aviation regulations, as well as other laws enforceable by other State entities.
“The increasing number of reported incidents of RPAS flying into other people’s properties without permission, or following individuals around, is of concern.”
Hefty fines for failure to abide by the rules
RPAS operators who fail to adhere to civil aviation regulations could receive a 10-year prison sentence or a fine of R50 000, or both. Individuals that use RPAS in an irresponsible manner may also face legal liability for breaking laws enforceable by other government agencies.
According to civil aviation regulations, no remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) shall be operated, unless such an RPA is registered with the SACAA and has been issued with a letter of approval. No person shall operate an RPAS unless that person has been issued with a valid remote pilot’s licence.
Regulations prohibit the flying of an RPA directly overhead any person or group of people, or within a lateral distance of 50 metres from any person, structure or building. An RPA may not be flown into any property without the permission of the property owner.
The SACAA urges RPAS pilots to adhere to all the limitations and restrictions as outlined in the regulations, notably that:
- an RPA should always be in a fit-to-fly condition with the relevant authorisation to fly;
- the aircraft is not flown in a formation or swarm;
- the aircraft is not flown 400 feet above the surface or within a radius of 10 kilometres from an airport;
- the aircraft is not flown adjacent to or above a nuclear power plant, prison, police station, crime scene, court of law, national key point or strategic installation.
“The SACAA remains excited about the immense benefits and prospects offered by this technology, and hence we are working on initiatives that will foster more RPAS innovation and rapid integration into the South African airspace. However, we appeal to all stakeholders, including retailers, to make a concerted effort to adhere to all the applicable laws,” says Segwabe.
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