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The aviation authority says a drone licence isn’t onerous. What about hidden charges?

It crashed near the Koeberg nuclear power station and Eskom had a meltdown, so much so that the safety officer was suspended and the police were called in to investigate. The source of the furore?

A drone.

Once the sole domain of military special operations, these small aircraft have become cool tech for hobbyists to flaunt to friends over weekends.

To businesses and entrepreneurs, drones are commercial opportunities on rotor blades. They are growing smarter and more versatile, and have already been used to, for example, deliver pizza to skyscrapers in Mumbai.

E-commerce giant Amazon has announced that it is working with the British government to test the delivery of parcels weighing just over 2kg by drone.

Safety is a major concern for the South African Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The drone crash – near a nuclear facility and in restricted airspace where, according to safedrone.co.za, private drones may not fly and commercial drones need special permission – illustrates why South Africa has instituted stringent regulations to govern the use of this technology.

Drones, remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) in local bureaucratic parlance, must integrate with “the existing, and highly organised, manned aviation sector in a manner that will not present a risk to existing airspace users or citizens and property”, said CAA spokesperson Kabelo Ledwaba.

The regulations were introduced more than a year ago but many, especially small, one-person operations, regard them as onerous and expensive.

Amateurs who fly recreationally must obey regulations for drones but do not need to comply with the myriad licensing requirements for organisations or individuals intending to use drones for commercial purposes. The latter including getting an remote pilot’s licence (RPL), a certificate of registration for the drones and an RPAS operator certificate (ROC).

Ledwaba said the fees the CAA charges for the various applications barely cover the administrative and related costs to process them. It costs R600 to obtain a certificate of registration; R560 to apply for an RPL and R7 540 for an ROC.

But in practice it can be pricier.

Flight schools
There are only four registered flight schools that offer the necessary training and licence. One such school is UAV Industries.

According to operations manager Braam Botha, the licence requires a class 4 medical certificate, a restricted radio licence and verbal level 4 English test, among other things. It also requires training in a range of aviation fundamentals, including air law and flight planning and navigation, with an exam on each subject. Finally, there is flight training until you have met the requirements and received your letter of recommendation, after which comes a skills test.

The entire course costs about R28 500.

Then there are additional costs for setting up a commercial drone operation. This is in part because of the technical manuals, such as those for operations and safety, that must be submitted to the CAA. For instance, an operations manual informs the CAA how your organisation plans to comply with regulations.

The CAA does provide guidance on how to meet these requirements because this is a new industry and many entrants do not necessarily have the aviation expertise needed to draft these documents.

“The cost of setting up a drone operation can be expensive, depending on whether you write your own manuals or if you have a consultant assisting you,” said Botha.

The cost of a specialist to prepare your application pack is about R15 000, according to Botha, and having an expert prepare your technical manuals can cost about R65 000.

Burdensome compliance
A drone pilot who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on condition of anonymity began as a hobbyist, but has since fallen into commercial work. He said that while he appreciates the intention behind the regulations, compliance is too burdensome and costly.

While it makes sense for large commercial operations such as those in agriculture or mining, and even to some extent medium-sized operations that work on one-off projects such as those in the film industry, it makes little sense for the work he does.

“Like a driver’s licence, you shouldn’t have to get a truck driver’s licence to drive around your street,” he said.

Countries such as the United States and Australia are relaxing their drone laws, which have been deemed cumbersome and expensive.

But the CAA does not believe compliance , at least when it comes to the services it provides, is expensive or onerous.

“Our experience to date with those who are keen on operating RPAS legally has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Ledwaba. When it comes to approvals, most organisations, including small, medium and micro enterprises and small start-ups, are able to comply with the requirements, he added.

“However, we have also rejected some applications on the basis of these organisations not being able to demonstrate an acceptable level of compliance,” he said. This inadvertently presents a risk “to the operator, other airspace users and citizens”.

Botha said it was essential for businesses to only support legal operators because they are insured, their pilots have the proper training and they have shown the CAA that they can operate safely.

“We have had numerous pilots on our course that have been operational in the past and very quickly realise that they are not as experienced, skilled and were actually very lucky to not have caused any major incidents or accidents in the past,” said Botha.

International regulation
South Africa’s regulatory system is accepted nationally and internationally, said Ledwaba, with the CAA consistently receiving requests from other countries regarding the development of their regulations.

Operators, commercial or otherwise, must “put safety ahead of gains”. These aircraft can be easily acquired, he said, and in most instances they are made from consumer grade electronics with uncertified hardware and software, and their failure rates are “indeterminable”.

Although they are smaller and lighter than existing manned aircraft, they still present a substantial risk to people and property on the ground and, most crucially, to other manned aircraft, he added.

Although South Africa has set high standards for its industry, said Botha, “the full affect will be appreciated in a few years when beyond visual line of sight operations will be the norm and we are sharing airspace with manned aviation”.

Possibilities and delays
Botha believes the possibilities for the use of drones are vast. They include agricultural and mining surveying; security such as highway patrols, crime surveillance and fence patrols for farmers; conservation, such as anti-rhino poaching and patrolling; and building and bridge inspections.

The film industry uses drones extensively for aerial shots.

Concerns have been raised regarding the delay in processing and approving the various documents required, but the CAA said it is a multiphase approach and that the body has “to scrutinise and make sure that those who are eventually awarded approvals are indeed capable of undertaking their operations while maintaining acceptable levels of safety and security”.

Delays are often based on an operator’s inability to provide additional and necessary documentation.

The “lack of aviation experience” of some operators seems to be a contributory factor and can lead to a situation of “back and forth” between the applicant and CAA, added Ledwaba. Since the regulations have come into effect, the body has approved 204 remote pilot’s licence out of 218, declining 14. Five entities have applied to be training organisations, with one being processed and four approved. It has received 60 applications for operator certificates, with 52 in progress and eight approved.

But he did add that the CAA has completed a review and will be devoting more resources to administration. 

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Lynley Donnelly
Lynley Donnelly
Lynley is a senior business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. But she has covered everything from social justice to general news to parliament - with the occasional segue into fashion and arts. She keeps coming to work because she loves stories, especially the kind that help people make sense of their world.

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