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Archive for May, 2014

While the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in South Africa has taken off in recent years, it is actually illegal to fly or operate UAS or remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) in South Africa. Reiterating this point, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) recently warned that it intends clamping down on the flying of UAS. The SACAA’s threat of a clampdown is pretty toothless however, as it is unable to detect UAS use via radar. No mention was made in the SACAA statement either of going after UAS distributors and service providers. Diluting the warning still further is the fact that to date, no-one has been prosecuted for flying UAS / RPAs in South Africa.

All is not lost though. Over the last few years South Africa has been working under the guidance of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to integrate UAS into the civil aviation sector. Part of this process involves the development of robust standards to regulate classes of UAS; certification and airworthiness requirements; command control and communication systems; licencing and training of remote pilots; accident detection and avoidance systems; as well as the allocation of a secure frequency spectrum to ensure protection from unintentional or unlawful interference. The ultimate aim of all this being to create a regulatory framework that supports the evolution of UAS whilst ensuring that they are operated in a safe, harmonised and seamless manner, as is the case with manned operations.

While the goals of this integration process are laudable, it is unfortunately a very lengthy process with the ICAO anticipating the publication of the minimum requirements with which member states must comply by the end of 2018, and full integration to take place by 2028. Clearly, it will be quite some time before a complete set of regulations can be put into place to regulate South Africa’s UAS sector. And where will the technological frontier be by then?

A major advantage of the ICAO and the SACAA taking this standards-based regulatory approach, however, is that once the framework is eventually adopted it will be possible to update UAS regulations by simply updating the standards, thereby avoiding the necessity of repeating the lengthy integration process currently underway.

Understanding that the UAS sector cannot be held in limbo until 2028, the SACAA is in the process of putting together an interim guidance document as a provisional solution to enable restricted operational approval on a case-by-case basis. The SACAA reports that significant progress has been made on this document, and its release is dependent on the ironing out of processes before it can be released for public consumption.

In a national safety seminar dealing with the Draft White Paper on Civil Aviation, Zakhele Thwala, the deputy director general of civil aviation at the Department of Transport, states that the current draft UAS Policy statements are under review and that the following matters, amongst others, have been identified for further attention: issues relating to security and privacy related matters; the liability and insurance implications of both non-commercial and commercial UAS operations; and the requirement for commercial operators to acquire licences and operating certificates in terms of the applicable air service licencing legislation.

While it may be immensely frustrating for South African users of UAS technology to be held up by regulatory bodies playing catch-up to technology, they can take comfort from knowing that UAS users and service providers across the world share their frustrations.

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