Drone Regulations: An Aerial Perspective

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Photographers, videographers, researchers, farmers and hobbyists, to name but a few, have a readily available tool to give them a whole new perspective, an aerial perspective.  Drones, or formally known as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) have been around for some time but until recent years, these drones were unaffordable.  However, in today’s age, there are a wide range of advanced drones that are affordable and accessible to ordinary consumers world wide.

Although the drone industry has grown exponentially over the last few years with an influx of drones in the sky, it remained unregulated for many years, both internationally and in South Africa.

South Africa was one of the forerunners on the international scene in regulating this industry, by promulgating its comprehensive “drone regulations”, which came into effect on 1 July 2015.  The South African Civil Aviation Authority (more commonly known as the CAA) promulgated PART 101 of the Civil Aviation Regulations dealing specifically with the use  and operation of RPAS for private, corporate, non profit and commercial use in South Africa.   The main purpose of these regulations is to ensure safety in the airspace, the prevention of any aviation disasters involving drones, and to provide for the suitable training of drone pilots and administration of drone approvals and registrations.

But is buying and operating drones as easy as many people think?  Can a consumer merely go out and buy a drone and have free reign to fly the drone from their garden without further ado?  The simple answer is –  no.  Whilst it may be straightforward to purchase a drone without having to comply with any particular formalities, both personal and commercial users need to be privy to the laws regulating and limiting the use of their drones before taking flight.

While the requirements for using a drone for private use is most certainly less onerous than that of commercial use,  in that the drone need not be registered and licensed before its operation nor does the pilot require a Remote Pilots License, private drone users must  still be cognisant of and comply with the prescriptive regulations in operating their drones.  Some of the operation restrictions provided for in the regulations include:

  • Drones may only be flown in conditions in which the operator has unaided direct (personal) line of site of the drone and may only be operated within 500 m of the operator and not higher than the highest obstacle within 300 m from the operator;
  • A public road may not be used for landing or take off, without prior authorisation;
  • Drones may not be operated in controlled, restricted or prohibited airspaces, without prior authorisation;
  • Drones may not release or drop any object or substance and may not carry cargo;
  • The operator may not consume alcohol up to 8 hours before the operation of the drone and may not operate the drone when intoxicated;
  • Drones may only be operated in an area more than 50m from people, buildings or roads and in an area more than 10km from an airport or airfield;
  • Drones may not be operated higher than 150ft without prior approval;
  • All manned aircraft have right of way over drones and drone operators are to avoid passing over, under or in front of manned aircraft
  • Drones may only be operated on the operator’s property or with the relevant property owner’s consent.

However, when a drone is operated with a commercial outcome, interest or gain, the peremptory regulations are comprehensive, detailed and lengthy.

The regulations prescribed that certain requirements must be met before a drone is operated for commercial use, these include:

  • The drone operator must apply and be issued with a letter of approval for the drone, which is valid for a period of 12 months;
  • The drone must be issued with a certificate of registration;
  • The operator must have a valid Remote Pilots License, which requires him or her, amongst other things, to:
    1. Not be less than 18 years of age;
    2. Hold a class 4 medical certificate;
    3. Hold a Certificate of Proficiency in Radiotelephony;
    4. Submit proof of English proficiency;
    5. If required, undergo flight training which is available at registered Aviation Training Organizations (ATOs); and
    6. Pass certain theoretical and skills examinations.
  • The drone operator must have a RPAS operator’s certificate (ROC), which is valid for a period of 12 months.

The regulations further impose onerous obligations on pilots including:

  • All pilots must record the particulars of each flight in a log book;
  • An ROC holder must develop an operations manual which is to be approved by the CAA demonstrating, amongst other things, the operator’s intended compliance with the regulations and safety standards during its operations;
  • RPAS operators must establish a system of record keeping that allows adequate storage and reliable traceability of all activities developed and provide for certain issues including lines of responsibility and accountability; and
  • An ROC holder must establish a safety management system.

Commercial users must adopt all safety standards applicable to private users as well, which have been detailed above. Commercial users are also advised to secure third party liability insurance to ensure they are protected in the event of their drone being involved in an accident.  As these regulations are onerous on commercial users, it is advisable to any consumer considering operating a drone for commercial purposes to consult with an attorney to ensure that he/she is fully compliant with the regulations before undertaking such a commercial endeavour.

Whilst many consumers are flying drones in contravention of these regulations, whether it be due to their ignorance of these regulations or plain refusal to comply with the regulations, consumers are cautioned against doing so. Should it be found that operators are not complying with these regulations, they face a hefty fine or imprisonment.

Stephne Kleinloog

Stephne has a BComm LLB (cum laude) and was admitted as an attorney in 2014 after completing her articles at Norton Rose Fulbright. She continued to practice as an associate in its transport team specialising in shipping, aviation and insurance law. She joined Caveat Legal in 2016.