Flying drones, quad-copters in South Africa: legal or illegal?

To all the South Africans wondering what the status of flying their beloved multi-rotor aircraft is at present, the following was published on MyBroadband. 

The issue of whether it is legal or illegal to fly radio-controlled and unmanned aircraft in South Africa is a complex one involving three different organisations.

As things stand today, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) has no regulations to govern what it calls Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS’s), which means it is illegal to fly unmanned drones in South Africa.

However, SACAA makes a distinction between a UAS and a “toy”, saying that the director of civil aviation in South Africa has designated an external organisation to oversee recreational flight activities.

That organisation is the Recreational Aviation Administration of South Africa (Raasa), who in turn has appointed the South African Model Aircraft Association (Samaa) to handle remote controlled model aircraft.

While there is a distinction made between recreational and non-recreational UAS’s, Raasa’s operations manager Pierre Laubscher explained that it remains illegal to fly any kind of completely autonomous aircraft in South Africa.

In other words, an aircraft must be at least remote controlled by an operator for it to be covered under existing regulations.

What about the remote-controlled quad-copters SACAA has “banned”?

There have been many conflicting reports about the legality of flying “drones” in South Africa, along with a recent statement from the Cape Film Commission (CFC), which said that the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) has banned them.

In some contexts, such as the CFC’s statement, the word “drone” is often used to describe remote-controlled aircraft with multiple rotors, such as quad-rotor helicopters.

This may be because of the use of quad-copters in projects involving autonomous formation flying which became quite popular on YouTube, where it was quite correct to refer to them as “drones”.

However, for the remainder of this article, “drone” will not be used except to refer to fully autonomous aircraft.

Definitions aside, SACAA has denied banning anything, saying that it was never legal to fly remote-control quad-copters outside the purview of Raasa in the first place as there are no regulations to govern their commercial flight.

Laubscher has added to this, saying that the quad-copters that have become so popular are not model aircraft and not a drone, but stuck somewhere in-between.

Raasa has reached out to Samaa to adjust their rules and definitions to accommodate quad-rotors, Laubscher said.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that toy quad-copters such as the Parrot A.R. Drone or one you built yourself are illegal in South Africa.

“Park flyers” — light makes right

As long as a toy weighs less than a certain amount and uses an open frequency band for its remote control (hence does not require a spectrum license from Icasa), Laubscher said it may be classified as a “park flyer”.

These park flyers may not be flown higher than 150 feet (around 50 meters), may not fly within 5 nautical miles of any airfield, and must remain in visual range, Laubscher said.

According to the Saama website, a park flyer may not weigh more than 1kg.

Laubscher said that as long as the remote controlled aircraft complies with the above specifications then it may be flown without belonging to Samaa or getting special permission.

However, this too comes with a list of caveats.

All the laws not in one place

The second you mount a camera on an aircraft, a whole new set of laws apply, such as those protecting people’s privacy, explained Laubscher.

Aircraft may also not be flown over an open assembly of people, and may not be flown where it may be a nuisance or hazard to people or property (property may include pets and livestock), said Laubscher.

He added that everything he said is based on his experience, knowledge of the law, and opinion.

“If something goes wrong there may be 50 other people who also have knowledge of the laws who may have a different opinion,” Laubscher warned.

“To be safe, just apply common sense,” Laubscher continued “Fly far away from airfields or where you can be a hazard to people or property.” And if someone asks you to stop flying near them, then stop.

SACAA working on it

To film-makers and other professionals that have expressed concern over not being able to use remote-controlled quad-copters in South Africa, SACAA has said that it is working on a solution.

“SACAA has made an undertaking to have an interim guidance document as a provisional solution to enable restricted operational approval of UAS on a case-by-case basis until regulations are in place,” the authority said in a statement to MyBroadband.

“It is envisaged that the interim document will be completed before 31 March 2015, or sooner,” SACAA said.

Laubscher also tried to allay fears that commercial interests are holding back the legalisation of drones and heavier quad-copters in South Africa.

“Nobody wants to kill it. Everyone sees that there’s a great opportunity here,” Laubscher said.

“It’s not that South Africa is behind,” he added, saying that international regulators are also scrambling to develop laws and regulations around this new industry.

However, of prime importance is protecting the public, Laubscher said.

“Imagine an unregulated environment where a quad-copter’s battery runs out and it falls out of the sky in the middle of the N1.” The damage and even death such an event could cause is not something to be taken lightly, he argued.

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Comment by Gisela & Joe Noci on June 20, 2014 at 11:10pm

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