South Africa Moves Forward on Drone Regulations

Drone operators in South Africa have been cooling their heels, waiting for regulations allowing commercial drone operations from the South Africa Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA).  Based on this report, it looks like their wait will soon be over.  In what would constitute a lightning-fast rules process in the U.S., South Africa went from proposed rules, issued in December, to the close of comments just over two weeks ago.  The regulations are supposed to be finalized by the end of January, and will hopefully become law by April-May of this year.

The draft regulations would require aircraft to be licensed and registered and pilots/operators to undergo training to qualify them to fly the aircraft. Someone would only be able to fly a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) if they have an RPA Pilot License, an RPA Operator Certificate, a certificate of RPA registration and an RPA Letter of Approval.
Importantly, RPAs will be classified according to their mass, kinetic energy and type of operation (line of sight, beyond line of sight etc.), with ten classes ranging from Class 1A to Class 5 and with masses ranging from less than 1.5 kg to greater than 150 kg.

The draft regulations apply to class 1 and 2 RPAs (up to 120 kg). Private operations of RPAs will be conducted only in restricted visual line of sight with a Class 1A or 1B RPA (up to 7 kg). However, operating a UAV as a hobbyist falls under different regulations.

The proposed categories for pilots is interesting:

For anyone in South Africa with a UAV, there are three options to fly legally: one can apply for a license if pursuing commercial work (once the regulations are finalised); one can become a member of the South African Model Aircraft Association (SAMAA) if flying as a hobbyist; or one can fly as a ‘park flyer’.

Great work for SAMAA.  We believe that the following applies to those seeking to do commercial work:

Someone would only be able to pilot an RPA once in possession of a Remote Pilot License (RPL) in one of three categories: RPL (A) – Aeroplane Remote Pilot License; RPL (H) – Helicopter Remote Pilot License; and RPL (MR) – Multirotor Remote Pilot License. Several ratings are available including visual line of sight operations (VLOS), extended visual line of sight operations (E-VLOS) and beyond visual line of sight operations (B-VLOS).

The License would test things like air law, meteorology, navigation, aerodynamics, propulsion, flight control, batteries etc. Flight training can be a combination of simulator and real aircraft training and would cover things like aircraft inspection, systems checks, flight control/manoeuvres, takeoff, landing etc.

In other words, the SACAA isn’t taking a one-size-fits-all approach to licensing and, unlike the FAA, apparently won’t require pilots to be licensed to fly manned aircraft.

The flight rules get a little more complicated:

For commercial, corporate and non-profit flight operations, an operator would be required to have an RPA Operator Certificate (ROC – valid for 12 months) or air services license, which can only be granted if the operator has a registered aircraft, an operations manual and an RLA. ROC holders would have background and criminal record checks conducted and would have to have third party insurance.

For private use, RPAs would only be flown in restricted visual line of sight (within 500 metres of the pilot) and over property the pilot owns or has permission to operate over.

With regard to operating an RPA, under the draft regulations an aircraft would only be operated in controlled airspace by a holder of an ROC or if the RPA is flown in visual meteorological conditions in an air traffic zone (ATZ) and controlled traffic region (CTR) below 400 feet. RPAs intended for operations within an ATZ or CTR would have to be fitted with a mode C or S transponder, altimeter, strobe light/s and navigation lights.

Did we say that the operations rules get a little complicated?  Scrolling through the proposed regulations, one finds nuggets like this:

First aid kits

101.05.24 (1) No owner or operator of an RPA shall operate the aircraft unless a first aid kit consisting of the medical supplies … for manned aircraft is available within the remote pilot station and within 300 m of the takeoff and landing points. . . .

(2) The owner or operator shall carry out periodical inspections of the first aid kit to ensure that, as far as practicable, the contents thereof are in a condition necessary for their intended use.

(3) The contents of the first aid kit shall be replenished at regular intervals, in accordance with instructions contained on their labels, or as circumstances require.

(4) The first aid kit shall be readily accessible to all crew members involved in the operation.

Hand-held fire extinguishers

101.05.25 No owner or operator of an RPA shall operate the RPA unless –

(a) a hand-held fire extinguisher is available in the remote pilot station and within 300 m of the takeoff and landing points;

(b) a hand-held fire extinguisher suitable for use with electronic equipment and any power generating equipment in use is available in the remote pilot station; and

(c) a hand-held fire extinguisher suitable for use on the RPA is available within 300 m of the takeoff and landing points.

Good Lord.

As one might imagine, South African officials are concerned about a lack of personnel to implement these regulations, once they become law.  Such a dilemma is the natural result of a regulatory regime that, while sensible on some levels, is still going to be grossly inefficient and difficult to administer.

We give this proposed set of drone regulations a C+.

The complete draft regulations can be found here.

Commercial Drone Licensing in Great Britain

Writing at the Washington Post’s Innovations blog, Matt McFarland reviews the approach to small, commercial drone licensing in Great Britain, where the “Civil Aviation Authority — an equivalent to the FAA — has approved three companies to provide training on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that weigh less than 45 pounds.”  The training and licensing regimen is notable in that, unlike the FAA’s requirements in a number of Section 333 exemptions and in its pending rules, Britain does not require operators to hold a pilot’s license for manned aircraft.

One of the approved training companies, Sky-Futures,

sends trainees a ground school manual to gain an understanding of how airspace operates and how to read an air map. Newbies are given a month at home with the manual, but experienced manned aircraft pilots are required to spend far less time with it.

Sky-Futures then puts trainees through two days of ground school and three weeks of actual flight training in Spain. Aside from much of the summer, the British group heads to Spain for the drier conditions and clear skies. Lessons take place at an approved test site. Students learn everything from how to navigate around objects to how to operate a camera on a drone safely.

And who wouldn’t enjoy three weeks in Spain, especially when looking to escape the (mostly) crappy weather in the UK?  That might, of course, assume that you can spare the time.  Good luck monitoring your business if you’re a real estate broker.

Then there’s the other catch:  the cost is roughly $12,000.  The director of training at Sky-Futures, himself a Boeing 747 pilot, calls this a “gold-plated standard.”  Gold-plated or not, it might put the training out of reach for aspiring freelancers.

The downstream requirements are much less onerous.  Once a pilot is certified, he needs to submit an operations manual and proof of insurance.  But otherwise, the regulations are fairly minimal, and reasonably risk-based (operators of drones over 15 lbs have to notify air traffic control before flying).

We see a danger of regulatory capture, here.  Training schools like this will of course have a vested interest in lobbying for greater – but not too much – complexity.

Still, we think that this is better than nothing, and it seems far more reasonable than what is rumored to be in store from the FAA.  But three weeks of training, at a cost exceeding $10k, still seems like something that is going to create unreasonable barriers to entry for operators of small drones.

We give this regulatory framework a B+.