18 myths about South Africa’s new drone laws

The Director of the SA Civil Aviation Authority announced on 17 May that South Africa will introduce new laws to help regulate remotely piloted aircraft systems, popularly known as drones.

These regulations were recently signed by the Minister of Transport Dipuo Peters, and will be published and implementable by 1 July 2015.

In the build up to the implementation of the regulations, there has been some confusion around what will and won’t be required of drone owners and pilots.

Drone Crew has put together a list of 18 myths about South Africa’s new drone regulations to help clear the air.

1. All Drone Operators Must Have a Pilot’s Licence

The drone operator does not need a pilot’s licence if he is operating for private or hobby use. The Remote Pilots Licence (RPL) is only required for commercial, corporate, and non-profit use. The RPL is 10-times less complex and time consuming as a PPL licence.

2. The RPL Drone Pilot Licence will Cost R150,000.

The cost of the RPL licence is nowhere close to that of a PPL. How much will it cost then? Indications are a few hundred Rands for the online theory exam, and a few hundred Rands for the practical skills test, plus a few hundred Rands for final application (with proof of completion) for the actual RPL licence.

3. A Medical Class 4 is Required to Fly a Drone

The new drone regulations allow for medical self assessment, and do not require a medical certificate for drones smaller than 20kg (larger than 20kg is not yet possible).

If you need to fly B-VLOS (beyond visual line of sight) or if you fail the medical self assessment, then only do you need to do a full medical class 4. But for the majority of drone pilots: simply complete the self assessment.

4. The Requirement for English Language Proficiency is Racist and Stupid

English is the standard language required in aviation world-wide. The test is done to ensure you are able to communicate in English.

5. No Flying Closer Than 50m from People – So I Cannot Film People?

The regulations allow private and commercial pilots to fly closer than 50m from people if those people are part of the operation and under the control of the drone pilot. You cannot fly close to public or people not under your control.

6. No Flying Closer Than 50m from Buildings – So I Cannot Film Buildings?

The regulations allow private and commercial pilots to fly closer than 50m to buildings if the owner of that building has given permission. But you cannot fly close to buildings when you do not have permission from the owner of the building.

Commercial drone operations will be able to get special permission to fly close to buildings to accomplish their work.

7. No Flying Closer Than 10km from Airports – Rules Out Most Towns and Cities

The regulations allow commercial pilots with an air band radio, and approved ROC to fly closer than 10km from airports, provided they communicate with the ATC in controlled airspace.  Commercial drone operations will be able to get special permission to fly close to airports to accomplish their work.

Private drone pilots will not be able to fly closer than 10km from an airport, even if the airport gives them permission.

8. Drones can Fly up to 400 Feet above the Ground

All private drones may only fly under RVLOS, which is a bit more restrictive than VLOS. RVLOS means the private drone may only fly as high as the highest object within 300m lateral distance of the drone. In other words: as high as the trees or towers in the area.

Only commercial drone pilots can fly in VLOS (up to 400 feet AGL).

9. Drones are Cheap, Small, and Easy to Fly

Many commercial drones are large, and many weigh between 5-20kg, and could cause substantial damage when they crash.

Too often new pilots are drawn in to a false sense of control after they learn to fly basic movements in just a few minutes. But when a GPS system fails (for example under a bridge or between trees) the pilot suddenly realises he does not have the skill to fly manually.

10. Full-Sized Aircraft Always Fly above 500 feet Anyway – So There is No Chance of Collision with Drones

Aircraft actually often fly lower than 500 feet AGL (above ground level). Police choppers and air ambulances often fly low, and take off and land just about anywhere that is safe for them to do so. Crop sprayers and game capture aircraft fly low almost all the time for their work.

It is the responsibility of the drone pilot to give way to manned aircraft.

11. A Drone is Just a Model Aircraft with a Camera on it

Many drones do not have cameras. Simply removing the camera from a drone does not suddenly make it a model aircraft. The key difference between a drone (RPAS) and a model aircraft is what it is used for.

12. An RC Helicopter or RC Airplane Cannot Be a Drone – Model Aircraft Have Been Around for Many Years

The regulations clearly define RPAS (drones) as separate from model aircraft. Three types of drone pilot licences are available: Multirotor Drones, Fixed-Wing Drones, and Helicopter Drones.  The key difference between a model aircraft and an RPAS is what the intended use is.

13. Drone Regulations Are Much More Restrictive than Model Aircraft Regulations

The regulations for RPAS (drones) are much less restrictive than the regulations for model aircraft. RPAS can be operated just about anywhere (with commercial licence), and can be operated at night (model aircraft may not fly at night).

14. The New Regulations Must Then Also Apply to Paper Airplanes and Toys

The regulations clearly define toys as separate and do not fall under the new regulations for drones (RPAS) or model aircraft. Toys are “designed or intended for use in play by children.”

15. I Will Then Simply Classify my DJI Phantom (or similar) as a “Toy”

The regulations already classify RPAS (drones), model aircraft, and toys. The DJI Phantom (or similar) certainly is an RPAS, and cannot be classified as a toy, or a model aircraft.

16. The SACAA Will Never Be Able to Enforce This – Nobody is Going to Catch Me Anyway

The SACAA has indicated they have an enforcement plan, and an education plan to ensure the public and SAPS and other enforcement agencies are aware of, and empowered to enforce, the new regulations.

17. My Clients Don’t Care – I Will Still Have Lots of Business Without an RPL Drone Licence

Clients will not want to take on the risk of employing an unlicensed drone pilot. It will also become very difficult to get proper insurance cover for unlicensed commercial drone pilots.

18. The Drone Licence is Going to Be Impossibly Hard and Complicated to Get

Some have already started working on complying to the new regulations for commercial drones, and have achieved many of the requirements. The process may very well have teething problems, and it could be that the first few applications take months to process.

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18 myths about South Africa’s new drone laws