South Africa’s newly-published regulations for Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) are among the first in the world to officially state who may fly drones and where, for commercial purposes. Due to come into effect from 1st July, they’ve been broadly welcomed by industry veterans that we’ve spoken to, but still leave some important questions unanswered.

Danie Bezuidenhout, Vice President of Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of Southern Africa (CUAASA) told htxt.africa that while the regulation is a step in the right direction, it will hamper the operations of small to medium businesses who make use of drones.

CUAASA, who played an important role in the consultation process for drawing up the new regulations, was banned from attended the briefing where the regulations were made public.

“We were told that it was exclusively for the media, but slipped in none the less. I was told that I couldn’t ask any questions, but I was eventually allowed to pose a number of questions to the panel,” he explained.

Bezuidenhout said that parts of the regulation don’t make sense, and when he asked about them during the briefing, no answers were given.

“Some of it doesn’t make sense, and the questions that I posed couldn’t be answered fully by those who were there,” he said.

One of the questions he raised was that it is making it very difficult for small to medium organisations to operate drones under the new regulations.

According to the regulations, you will need a specific remote pilot’s licence (RPA) and a letter of approval to operate it – among others. In terms of getting a RPA licence, pilots will need to undergo training and write an exam.

“Who is going to do the training, and how long is it going to take to get a licence? We have raised these questions before but have had no response.”

Bezuidenhout said that he believes it will take about two months for a pilot licence to be issued, and in that time all pilots who have been flying drones in the past will be grounded. He surmised that there will be no drones operating for the next year, as systems for licensing haven’t been put in place and may experience initial delays.

Another factor is the cost involved to get everything in order – and this is where Bezuidenhout feels small to medium organisations are being neglected.

“At first glance of the new regulations, we estimate that it will cost between R80 000 to R100 000 to get a drone off the ground. Small companies don’t have that kind of money, and the regulations only benefit large companies.”

Bezuidenhout says that poorly implemented or understood regulations will be worse than not having any at all.

“We had concerns from the beginning about the new regulations. It means nothing if the structures aren’t in place.”

There is one silver-lining though: the unique thing about South Africa’s drone regulations, according to Bezuidenhout, are that they are the only regulations in the world that allow for beyond line of sight flying and for day/night flying.

Juanne Whyte, head of broadcast sales at electronics retailer Orms Direct, one of the largest suppliest of drones to the film and photography industry, says he welcomes the new regulations, and that it will be business as usual.

“There is no more a law that says that you can’t buy a drone… it looks like we will have to make purchasers aware of the new regulations, but it will be their responsibility to comply,” he told us.

One of the more contentious parts of the new regulations is likely to be the restrictions regarding flying over people. According to the South African Civil Aviation Authority, “the flying of an RPA directly overhead any person or group of people or within a lateral distance of 50m from any person” will be prohibited.

That essentially outlaws much of the intended use for the film industry, especially recording crowd footage at festivals and the like.

“I agree with the regulations,” says Whyte, “If a drone flies over a large crowd at a festival and has a crash, that has serious implications – but it is very ambiguous if you ask me.”

Another area that will need clarification, Whyte believes, is the requirement for drones to stay at least 50m from a building. Structural inspection using drone cameras is increasingly common – and being used in the construction of Medupi power station, for example.

This could pose a challenge for emergency workers, and Whyte says he has at least one customer who is a fire marshall at a mall.

“For a fire marshal, flying over a large mall to get a scope of the layout is a huge help for him working out what they need to do if a fire breaks out. It’s fine looking at plans (blue prints) but you get a much better idea from live video.”

Whyte’s main reservation, however, is the ambiguity around classification of drones. The most reasonable interpretation of the regulations at the moment suggests that it’s the type of usage that distinguishes a toy which doesn’t need a licence to a drone, which does. Model aircraft can be used for recreation or sport without any oversight (although safety guidelines do apply), but the same aircraft used to film a building for inspection needs a licensed pilot.

“I want to see regulations that classify drones by a certain payload and diameter,” says Whyte, “For example, ‘a drone with this (type of) payload and diameter is a Class 1 and be flown anywhere. If it has this type of payload and (type of) blades, it is classified as Class 2. And then, this is a Class 4 and you need a helicopter licence’,” he said.

“It’s a touchy situation at the moment, we’ll see how it pans out.”

[Image – CC by 2.0/Lee]

Charlie started his professional life as a motoring journalist for a community newspaper in Mpumalanga, Charlie explored different journalistic angles since his entry into the fast-paced world of publishing in 2006. While fostering a passion for the arts, Charlie developed a love for technology – both which allowed him to serve as Entertainment and Technology Editor for an online publication. Charlie has since been heavily involved in consumer technology for various websites and publications. He thoroughly enjoys World War II films and cerebral documentaries; aviation; photography and indie music. Oh yes, and he also has a rather strange obsession with collecting coffee mugs from his travels.