Fun with a warning

2019-02-04 14:07
Drones are being used to fight poachers in the Kruger National Park.

Drones are being used to fight poachers in the Kruger National Park.

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They may be one of the “coolest” and most sought-after gadgets, but drones come with a warning that if not heeded, could lead to a fine or even jail time.

Pappie Maja, spokesperson for the SA Civil Aviation Authority (Sacaa), has warned that the inappropriate and illegal use of these nifty gadgets can land errant individuals in jail or slapped with a hefty R50 000 fine, or both.

Maja told Weekend Witness that while it is not illegal to operate a drone in South Africa, remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), popularly known as drones, must integrate with the existing aviation sector in a manner that does not present risk to existing airspace users, citizens and property.

He said as popular as they are, people should not confuse drones with toy aircraft and unknowingly break aviation laws.

“The confusion around the two has led to many people unintentionally breaking aviation and other laws,” he said.

“It is crucial that drone owners make an effort to familiarise themselves with remotely piloted aircrafts’ systems laws, which in certain instances are applicable to all types of aircraft, including toy aircraft, model aircraft and a remotely piloted aircraft,” he added.

People are forking out substantial amounts of money for this modern-day gadget, with the cost of hobbyist drones ranging from under R1 000 for miniature versions such as the Blade Inductrix, to around R25 000 for the popular DJI Mavic Pro and even R35 000 for the DJI Phantom.

According to the State of the Drone report in South Africa, in 2017, 40 000 drones with cameras were sold countrywide.

Local toy retailer Toy Kingdom identified flying drones as all-round top sellers last year.

Precious Mwelase, assistant manager at Liberty Midlands Mall’s Toy Kingdom, said flying drones are the big trend and items that have been demonstrated in the store have sold well.

Nico van Rooyen, of the KZN Drone Association, said he and other drone operators are working together to ensure that everyone is educated on how to use drones in the correct and legal manner.

“Drones are here to stay, but the industry needs to be formalised and legally compliant. Safety is the key, and something we need to keep in mind as this part of aviation grows exponentially,” said Van Rooyen.

“Everyone, from the importer to the distributor, the retailer, the customer and someone who wants to hire an operator of a drone, needs to understand how to use a drone. There needs to be an education and awareness campaign around the use of drones. There is an excess of illegal operators,” he said. 

Commercial drone operators need a pilot’s licence

Maja said drones bought and used for private and personal use do not need a licence to be operated. Drones purchased for commercial gain need to be licensed, and the person operating the drone needs to have a pilot’s licence. He also pointed out that some drones are made with uncertified and often untraceable hardware and software.

“The failure rate of some of these aircraft is indeterminable, as there are currently no civil certification standards available anywhere in the world.

“Although these aircraft are much smaller and lighter than existing manned aircraft, their presence in the skies still presents a significant risk to other airspace users, people and property on the ground. A collision of an RPAS and a helicopter or a jet full of passengers could lead to a catastrophic accident,” said Maja. He said there have not been any accidents caused by drones and no other near sightings, except for one near King Shaka Airport in December 2018.

Ntobeko Ngcobo, Msunduzi Municipality spokesperson, said there have not been reports of airspace infringements in controlled airspace at the Pietermaritzburg Airport.

The most common example of the inappropriate use of the gadget locally relates to a drone crash within the premises of the Koeberg nuclear power facility outside Cape Town in 2016.

In London, Gatwick Airport shut down for two days in December 2018 while authorities dealt with 67 reports of drones flying near one of its runways. The incident caused major travel disruption, affecting about 140 000 passengers and over 1 000 flights.

In another incident, earlier this month, flights from Heathrow Airport were halted for about an hour after reported sightings of a drone.

To date, the Sacca says it  has registered 1 224 RPAS on the aircraft register and has issued 1 156 remote pilot’s licences.


Why are drones so popular?

Sean Reitz, vice chairperson of the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of Southern Africa (Cuaasa), said its mandate is to support the interests of commercial drone operators.

“Non-commercial or hobby activities and the responsibility for advising those using the technology, sits with the retailers who are obliged by law to advise of the regulations at the time of sale,” said Reitz.

He said drones have become popular because they are “quite easy to fly” and relatively “affordable”.

“They are high technology and they are now small enough to carry on trips and so capture memories in an alternative way,” said Reitz.

Reitz said for commercial use, drones can gather data on a variety of industries, some of which was previously impossible to achieve.

“They reduce personal safety risk for people working at height and they can add a new dimension to security, firefighting and emergency response.”

He said drones can also deliver medical supplies and they can spray crops on farms and transport goods and people in the future.

Don’t cause an aviation tragedy

Given that South Africa has over 13 000 aircraft on the South African Aircraft Register, Maja said the country’s airspace is relatively congested and busy with a variety of operations, including among others, helicopters, recreational aircraft, hot-air balloons as well as jets carrying large numbers of passengers.

“As much as drones are cool gadgets, they also pose risks and if not operated in line with applicable laws, may cause a collision with other aircraft, with possible fatal results,” said Maja.

Moreover, he warned that individuals who use remotely piloted aircraft systems in an irresponsible manner, may also face legal liability for breaking laws enforceable by other authorities; for instance, laws pertaining to privacy. “Given the low cost and availability of these aircrafts, it is possible that irresponsible operators may easily obtain and utilise these aircrafts in an unsafe manner, thus presenting a risk to other aviators and the public,” said Maja.

“A drone may not be flown into any property without the permission of the property owner,” said Maja.

He implored the public to report errant individuals or entities to the Sacca or the police for investigation.

Working on the safety aspect

According to the 2016 PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) global report on the commercial application of drone technology, one of the most important areas being investigated is that of ensuring safety by developing see-and-avoid technology and integrating it with existing air traffic control systems.

The report said the proposed solutions also have to be aligned with each country’s specific unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) regulations.

“There are several companies trying to solve this issue, for example, Airware and PixiePath. Both provide autonomous flight control systems and ground control software, helping businesses to operate safely a variety of drone aircraft. Furthermore, leading drone manufacturers are incorporating autonomous obstacle detection systems into their newest products,” read the report.

The report said another key challenge that drone manufacturers face is enhancing the ability to control drones autonomously and allowing them to communicate instantly with other airborne vehicles over long distances. Further challenges are high energy consumption and the limited transmission range of long-term evolution networks.

A quick guide by Sacaa on the do’s and don’ts


• Fly/operate remotely piloted aircraft, or toy aircraft, in a safe manner, always.

• Remotely piloted aircraft or toy aircraft should remain within the visual line of sight at all times.

• Fly/operate RPA in daylight and clear weather conditions.

• Inspect your device before each flight.

Sacaa also urges remotely piloted aircrafts systems (RPAS) pilots and operators to adhere to the limitations and restrictions as outlined in the regulations, notably that:

• the RPAS should be in a fit-to-fly condition with the relevant authorisation;

• the person flying the RPAS is the holder of a valid Remote Pilot’s Licence;

• the aircraft is not flown in a formation or swarm;

• the aircraft is not flown 400 ft above the ground or within a radius of 10 km from an airport; and

• the aircraft is not flown adjacent to or above a nuclear power plant, prison, police station, crime scene, court of law, national key point or strategic installation.


• Do not, through act or omission, endanger the safety of another aircraft or person therein or any person or property through negligent flying/operation of remotely piloted aircraft, or toy aircraft.

• Do not fly/operate remotely piloted aircraft, or toy aircraft, 50 m or closer to:

• any person or group of people (like at sports fields, road races, schools, social events, etc.) and

any property without permission from the property owner.

• Unless approved by the Sacaa, do not fly/operate remotely piloted aircraft or toy aircraft:

• near a manned aircraft;

• 10 km or closer to an aerodrome (airport, helipad, airfield);

• weighing more than seven kilograms; and

• in a controlled, restricted or prohibited airspace.

Drones are noisy

According to there is an inescapable truth about drones, they’re noisy.

“Those high-speed spinning blades cutting through the air make a combination of sounds that can be unpleasant to listen to.”

They point out that animals too are affected by the noise from drones. writes that Amazon, UPS, Domino’s Pizza and other companies planning drone delivery services may be heading for discord. “A preliminary Nasa study has discovered that people find the noise of drones more annoying than that of ground vehicles, even when the sounds are at the same volume.”

Study co-author Andrew Christian of Nasa’s Langley Research Centre (U.S.), said their results indicate that the irritation their subjects experienced when listening to drone noises was as if a car was suddenly twice as close as it had been before.

New Scientist wrote it isn’t yet clear why drones sound so annoying. “Participants didn’t know they were listening to drones and were unaware of the study’s purpose.”

They said one reason for the difference might relate to how slowly most commercially available drones move.

“A drone takes a lot longer to pass by than a car and a common complaint was how the drone sounds seemed to loiter. If so, this might offer hope to Amazon, as the commercial drones included in the study are slower than those the company is developing, which are planned to reach about 95 kilometres per hour.”

“Our drones fly at a high altitude, well above people and structures,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

The company is also working on making them quieter.

However, Christian said that simply making drones “only as noisy” as delivery trucks would still mean they are more annoying, and companies may need to find ways to make their drones significantly quieter than ground vehicles.


Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  drones

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