Earlier this year, the laws around legal operation of remote control aircraft – aka drones, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Remote Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS) – changed in South Africa, introducing a framework for where and how drones can be flown, and who is allowed to fly them.
These new restrictions and regulations don’t, on the whole, apply to the kind of quadcopters that are going to popular as presents this Christmas and if you’re flying a drone for fun the main thing to be aware of is where their use is banned. That’s within 10km of an airport, 50m of a building or road and no higher than
400m 122m (see comments). Also, a hobby drone must be flown within line of sight, which means you shouldn’t be flying at night either.
For commercial purposes, things are a bit more complicated. There’s a list of requirements over at the excellent Safe Drone website, and you’ll need to register your drone with the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) and provide documents like an operations manual before you can use your aircraft to make money.
The first thing anyone who wants to fly a drone will need to do, however, is acquire a Remote Pilots Licence (RPL). Once you have that, as John Gore of Safe Drone points out in the comments below, you can seek employment in the nascent industry and work towards the other requirements to start your own firm.
The problem is that there’s not a huge amount of information around for aspiring pilots, so we spent a day with Joburg’s own ProWings Training to find out how to get our RPL, and how much it would cost. ProWings is the first South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA)-approved RPL training school in South Africa and, for a fee, they’ll help you get a licence.
This is what we found.
Drone licence pre-requisites
- You must be 18 years or older
- English Language Proficiency
- Owning a drone is not required
- Past experience with drones, or flying of any kind is not required
- Class 4 medical
To make sure a pilot is physically able, a medical examination is needed. This includes an “Aviation medical” as well as a chest x-ray. Both of these can be done through ProWings for an additional fee, or through a SACAA-approved doctor. Once this has been passed, a medical certificate will be awarded.
- Radio Telephony Licence (Restricted)
This is a separate licence that is comprised of up to three exams: Visual Line Of Sight (VLOS), Extended Visual Line Of Sight (EVLOS) and Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS). These three relate to your ability to actually see the drone you are piloting. VLOS and EVLOS deal with seeing the drone with the naked eye and involve written exams. BVLOS applies to operating drone out of your view and is achieved with an online exam. Note, however, that the BVLOS requires a special permission from the SACAA director.
Only one of the three is required for the drone licence, and will dictate how you can operate your drone. The price for all three is included at the bottom of the page.
Like the medical, these can be done through SACAA-approved channels at exam centres, or ProWings themselves.
We’ve also been told that the regulations surrounding this licence are in flux and have had minor changes as recently as three weeks ago.
For beginners (that is, non-accredited pilots) the theory course is a full-time two-week course.
Accredited pilots are those who hold the following licence(s): Private Pilot Licence (PPL), National Pilot Licence (NPL) and Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL). Accredited pilots only need to attend the second week.
The two weeks of theory are comprised of:
|Duration||Non- accredited pilots||Accredited Pilots|
||No attendance as these subjects have already been covered|
After the theory course has been completed, a practical needs to be completed.
These exams are broken down into “ratings”:
The ratings above refer to the type of drone you’re looking to pilot.
You may get multiple ratings, allowing you to pilot different types of drones, but you will need to pay for additional exams (R850 each).
Each exam is around 15 minutes in length, and consists of a pre-flight check, testing of certain manoeuvres and questions to make sure you understand the technical terms relating to piloting the drone.
Language proficiency exam
This is only required if you did not complete matric (or equivalent) with English as a first language subject.
Like the medical exam, this can be done through ProWings or through an SACAA-approved examiner.
An application form is created from the above and submitted to the SACAA
The Student Files will be put together by both ProWings and the person applying to be a licence. An application will be accompanied by
- Two passport photos
- Radio Telephony Licence
- Certified copy of SA identity document
- Medical certificate
- Language proficiency (if applicable)
- Proof of payment to SACAA (of R500)
Licence is awarded (or not)
After submitting theaccplication form to the SACAA, it will decide whether or not to issue a RPL
The SACAA’s turnaround time for a decision varies.
Once the decision is made, they will either contact you with details in claiming the licence or a denial.
In the case of a denial, though, the SACAA will indicate why. Once this problem has been resolved in the Student File, it can be resubmitted, but another R500 application fee will be due.
What it all costs
- Two-week theory course: R26 250
- One-week theory course (for accredited pilots): R13 125
- Radio Telephony Licence: R900
- Online exam for the above: R260
- Aviation medical: R1 200
- Chest X-ray: R600
- Language Proficiency (where applicable) : R900
- Designated Flight Examiner (DFE) check-out fee per single type Aircraft: R850
- RPL application fee (payable to the SACAA): R500
Total estimated cost : R44 575
A Licence is valid for 24 months.
Application for renewal process should be done two months prior to the expiry date.
Revalidation certificate lasts 36 months thereafter.
The licence is only applicable in South Africa.
//Update – this article was changed to clarify that the RPL is not the only thing you need to fly a drone legally in South Africa.
//Update – some minor updates due to changes that have been put in place since the writing of this story. There has been confusion regarding the validity period of the licence, but the SACAA has confirmed that it is 24 months.