So, the burning question of the day: if mining companies purchase the Skunk crowd control drone to use against pit head protesters, would they legally be allowed to fly them in South Africa? It’s a topical question, and one which – from a purely aeronautical point of view – we happen to have the answer to.

A couple of weeks ago, the South African blogosphere became improbably overwhelmed with a neat-sounding story about drones (aka Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, aka UAVs). It was widely alleged that the South African Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had banned the use of drones, and obviously this was sensationally reported as yet another example of how backward South African bureaucrats are, stifling the up-and-coming film industry and poor farmers who want to use drones for filming or crop spraying.

Except, of course, the story wasn’t true – or even new. It was based on a media circular issued by the CAA, which itself was widely reported, in April.

What the circular said was that not that the CAA was planning to ban drones, rather that there were not laws allowing their use beyond those established for recreational and sporting purposes. Anyone using drones for commercial purposes without a special licence was therefore breaking the law.

The CAA took pains to point out that it was planning to introduce specific regulation which would allow drone use, but this would take a while as it looked at safety issues and security for national key points and so on.

A spokesperson for the CAA told us that: “The aim is not really to stifle innovation, it’s to ensure safety because if any of these drones hit anything it would be a catastrophic situation. We have been in contact with many people who have been using them and they’re helping in drafting the guidelines. We also encourage people to come forward and enrich the discussion.”

The organisation even published another (widely unreported) press statement saying that it had been misrepresented over the banning issue. And it has been consulting with interested groups – like the South African UAV Organisation.

Popular manufacturer of home-use UAVs, Parrot, also issued a (also unreported) press release on the issue:

“We feel that the Parrot AR.Drone, in standard form, as sold locally, and without modification, falls outside of the proposed ban, and as such, provided that the guidelines are adhered to, can be safely sold and flown, without any recourse.”

Even Parrot gets it wrong here. There is no “proposed ban” – but that’s just semantics.

It is fair to say that drone use is developing faster than the law can keep up. A year ago, a cameraman was arrested for flying a UAV over the hospital where Nelson Mandela was being treated. The CAA has said that it wants draft guidelines around licensing drone use in place by the end of the year, but proper changes to the law may be “years” off.

//Update – I should add that I asked the CAA whether or not the April notifications were issued as a result of the hospital incident above or after aerial photographs of Nkandla were released late last year. The response was “I am not aware of these incidents being reported”.

So what does the law say? The law in question is the Civil Aviation Act of 2009, and the accompanying regulations of 2011. Funnily enough, it does mention UAVs – they fall under the definition of “model aircraft” and enjoy the same exemptions. These say:

“Model aircraft” means a heavier-than-air aircraft of limited dimensions, with or without a propulsion device, unable to carry a human being and to be used for competition, sport or recreational purposes rather than unmanned aeronautical vehicles (UAV) developed for commercial or governmental, scientific, research or military purposes, and not exceeding the specifications as set by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale as listed in Document SA-CATS 24;

The key part of that definition is the bit about “competition, sport or recreational purposes”. There are no blanket exceptions in the regulations that cover commercial use of an unmanned aircraft of any kind.

SA-CATS 24, meanwhile, defines model aircraft as:

Unless otherwise stated, model aircraft shall meet the following general specifications:

(a) maximum flying weight with fuel 25kg;

(b) maximum surface area 5m2;

(c) maximum loading 5kg/m2;

(d) maximum swept volume of piston motor(s) 250cm3;

(e) electric motors power source maximum no-load voltage 42 volts;

(f) metal-bladed propellers are prohibited.

Model helicopters shall meet the following general specifications:

(a) maximum weight with fuel 5kg;

(b) maximum swept area of the lifting rotor(s) counting only once any superimposed areas 3m2:

Provided that in the case of co-axial model helicopters whose rotors are further than one rotor diameter apart, the total area of both rotors is counted;

(c) piston motor swept volume maximum 10 cm3;

(d) rubber motor no restrictions.

(4) Free-flying model aircraft Free-flying model aircraft that are neither radio- or line-controlled shall not have a maximum mass exceeding 5 kg.

(5) Noise limitations:

(a) Noise limitations shall be applied to powered model aircraft categories, with 96 dB (A) at 3 meters for any category, which does not have approval for any other noise rule. Specific noise measuring procedures are to be developed by relevant national body in which model aircraft operators are associated.

(b) Noise limits do not apply to model aircraft with electric motors.

Which is pretty clear. For reference, a Parrot AR drone (available at Incredible Connection, Dion Wired, etc) weighs less than 500g.

So you if you have a drone which falls within those descriptions which you aren’t planning to use for commercial purposes, what does that entitle you to? Again, the regulations are clear.

94.06.11 Model aircraft are exempted from these regulations –
…(b) provided that no model aircraft shall be flown –
(i) higher than 150 feet above the surface; or
(ii) from or above a public road,
unless with the prior approval of the Director and on conditions determined by him or her; or
in airspace specifically approved for the purpose by the Director and on conditions set by him
or her for the use of such airspace.

There are other rules: you can’t fly at night, in controlled airspace or built-up areas, during a storm or within five nautical miles of an airstrip. So what constitutes a model aircraft?

TL:DR – Parrot is right. Your store-bought quadcopter is legal to fly. But if you attach a camera to it and plan to make money from that video, it’s not. And while the director of the CAA can issue one-off licences for exemptions to the regulations, there’s no internal guidelines as to how drones should be considered for exemptions yet – and this really is the sticking point for many in the film industry who want to use drones commercially. Effectively, there’s no way to issue licences until those interim guidelines are in place.

Which brings us to our question: is the Skunk crowd control drone legal? According to a spokesperson for the CAA:

“If these will be flown within the civilian airspace then they will be doing so illegally.”

[Image – CC 3.0 Flying Eye]
Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.