Recreational drone use: Know the risks you face!

2017-02-16 15:57 - Unathi Nkanjeni
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Cape Town - Drones are one of the fastest growing hobbies in South Africa if the latest stats on illegal drone usage is anything to go by.

According to the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) for every registered and licensed remotely piloted aircraft taking to the skies in SA, there are two or three more doing so illegally. 

And it's an expensive hobby to say the least. With price ranges between R1 000 and R100 000, drones have fast become a common phenomenon for private users as well as specialised tools in commercial fields. 

SEE: SACAA to crack down as illegal drone usage 'more than doubles' in SA

While South Africa’s regulations on drone operation have had significant licensing cost implications for businesses, consumers may be at the highest risk for financial loss.

SACAAS spokesperson Kabelo Ledwaba admits there is a perception that registration and training for drone users is an onerous and expensive one, illegal drone usage however carriers an even heftier fine of R50K and or 10 years in jail. 

As local authorities recognise the considerable growth in this sector and the risks associated with the use of drones - it is a big concern for recreational users who are under no legal obligation to get training.

SACAA requirements state anybody above the age of 18 is allowed to purchase a drone – with or without a licence. It does recommend recreational drone users to undergo training as well as familiarise themselves with the applicable dos and don’ts of Remote Pilot Aircraft Systems (RPAS) usage, and more specifically the relevant airspace and surrounds in which they are operating. See more info here:

Added to this, the South African Model Aircraft Association has been tasked with assisting aircraft hobbyists, and private users are encouraged to liaise with the organisation, says Ledwaba.

Untrained drone operator risk

John Du Plessis, legal advisor at Risk Benefit Solutions Pty (RBS), say risks of untrained recreational users are much higher than they might comprehend; a single drone is also capable of causing much more harm.

“A drone that loses control and veers onto a motorway, has the potential to cause not only damage to property including motor vehicles, but also injuries and deaths," says Du Plessis. "Drone incidents that are involved in near misses with passenger jets increase year on year, representing a growing risk of loss of life.”

Du Plessis further explains that uninsured drone pilots not only open themselves up to millions of Rand in civil liabilities resulting from injuries, deaths, and damage property, but also to criminal liability for injuries and deaths, and damage to property.

“Policies do not cover loss or damage while the drone is in use, and pilot liability is also excluded. This puts operators at an increased personal risk of exposure,” he warns.

Drone operators aviation school training

According to du Plessis, insuring commercial drone operators against liabilities is significantly easier than providing cover for private operators.

“The training is important here since the drone pilot officially learns the legal restrictions of flying the drone, needs to display competence in operating the equipment, and is required to pass a health examination,” Du Plessis says.

Having training allows a user to be insured against any liability for damages or injury, says Du Plessis who also states "the number of incidents among trained drone operators is lower than that of untrained drone operators". 

Du Plessis points out that incidents among untrained recreational operators are "also very high".

ALSO SEE: 12 Things you need to know about SA’s new drone rules

While under no legal obligation to get trained, Du Plessis argues that recreational drone pilots should seriously consider training at an accredited aviation school, thereby increasing  safety and chances that they are indeed insurable. 

He says training at an accredited aviation school costs around R12 000 per person, which often dissuades recreational pilots.

“Training may be expensive compared to the cost of a toy drone, but the risks far outweighs any cost implications to a recreational drone pilot in this case,” says Du Plessis.

The reality is, says the SACAA, is that it is not mandated to determine the cost as charged by RPAS retailers, training schools, or other service providers but echoes the sentiment that training is advised to avoid the risks. 

Fees payable to the SACAA are only applicable to commercial users and “hardly cover the associated administrative costs”, Ledwaba says.

However it would be "reckless for any RPAS owner or user to remain oblivious to the serious risks that these aircraft pose to other airspace users, property, and people on the ground."

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