Although already over two years old, South Africa’s Part 101 drone or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) regulations are still hotly debated, and in many instances, unfamiliar to those flying drones. Despite definite short-comings on the part of the CAA, South Africa’s RPAS regulations are closely aligned with the rest of the world; the problem is the rate of progress.
When Part 101 was implemented in July 2015, there were immediate protests, no doubt fuelled by the fact that until then, anyone who had a drone had been whizzing it into the air with carte blanche. But the regulations weren’t misguided.
South Africa had been participating in ICAO study groups and panels to develop drone guidelines for ICAO member states. These guidelines were contained in an ICAO Circular and Manual, and the SACAA had aligned our Part 101 with them, and was a leading authority in instigating RPAS regulations.
Usually the Manuals and Circulars develop into Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs), but the growth of the industry and demand for regulations meant that regulations had to be written before SARPs could be finalised. There were no ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) to go on. But the fact that South Africa’s Part 101 was developed in the absence of SARPs is not the key issue, rather it is the time it is taking to adapt the regulations to accommodate the rapidly evolving drone industry. Aviation has traditionally seen ponderous progression. The opposite is true with drones, and the regulations can’t be left to stagnate.
Hennie Kieser, President of CuAASA, the unmanned aviation branch of CAASA, says that legislation has to be rewritten almost monthly if it is to have any chance of keeping up with the daily technological advancements in the industry. Supporting Kieser’s remarks, Dean Polley, CEO of Aerial Vision Africa, says that new technology today has an expected life cycle of around 11 months before it becomes outdated and redundant.
This challenge to continually update the regulations is not unique to South Africa, but South Africa is notoriously slow to adapt and process changes to legislation. Both Polley and Kieser’s view is that without proactive engagement with the industry, and progressive practices in the regulation of the UAV sector, South Africa will lag behind the rest of the world, with the ultimate consequence being a lost opportunity to develop skills and jobs. What follows are a few key aspects of the RPAS regulations that need updating.
In manned aviation, an Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC) is required for commercial operations. Similarly, flying a drone for commercial or corporate purposes (drone services not supplied to others but used in a business) requires a Remote Operator’s Certificate (ROC). Here the CAA has largely overlaid the manned aviation regulations onto unmanned aviation, arguably resulting in misalignment of regulations and burdensome requirements. A regular gripe is the requirement for one or two people wanting to fly a light drone to take some photographs for clients to have an Air Services Licence issued by the Department of Transport.
However, the biggest issue is the processing time of an ROC. The drone sector is growing at a rate that is faster than what the CAA can handle. At the time of writing, since July 2015, the CAA had only managed to process 16 ROCs, with a rumoured backlog of over 300 applications. That’s just eight a year, and so, at the current rate, a new operator filing for an ROC today will have to wait over 37 years before they receive one.
The drone industry is where some of the greatest innovation in aviation is taking place, and yet current regulations in South Africa are restricting operational capabilities and in so doing hindering innovation.
As the regulations currently stand, provided operators can prove to the CAA that they can operate safely, they can get approval to fly in controlled airspace, over people and up to a distance of 1 km from the pilot – if there is a second licensed drone pilot standing as a spotter 500 m from the drone (known as extended visual line of sight, or E-VLOS). No operator in South Africa has been granted approval to operate Beyond Visual Line of Sight (B-VLOS) or at night. The trouble is a number of useful applications of drones require, or would benefit hugely from, night and B-VLOS operation. Railway inspection, search and rescue, anti-poaching operations, large scale mapping and surveying are just a few examples.
South Africa is also leading some of the innovation in the drone market. For example, ALTi, a company based in Knysna, has developed a hybrid multi-rotor/fixed-wing VTOL drone, that is ideal for long range survey and reconnaissance flights, but, unlike drones used for similar applications, doesn’t require a runway or catapult system.
The success of such products would benefit greatly from the support of the local regulator and on the subsequent growth in the domestic market. However, restrictions in the current regulations are hindering this innovation by not allowing for the types of operations for which the aircraft has been built. Such companies are, therefore, having to look to the export market to fund and sell their products.
In some cases, the current requirements regarding Remote Pilot Licence (RPL) training aren’t developing the requisite skills for commercial drone work in South Africa. South Africa has over 600 certified RPL pilots, and thousands more who are flying illegally. Often the unlicensed pilots are more skilled than the licensed ones.
Licensing needs to take into account the array of skills needed. At present, there are only three categories: fixed-wing, helicopter and multi-rotor. There is little consideration of the type of flying to be done and the weight of the aircraft being flown. To fly a survey with a drone that is, for the most part, flying autonomously using GPS requires limited skills. In this case, what the CAA currently requires of an RPL pilot is sufficient. However, when it comes to more specialised flying, such as film work, inspections of power cables, and indoor or underground work, where there is no GPS signal, the pilots need to be far more skilful. The CAA doesn’t differentiate between the operational skills needed, and whether you are flying a drone that weighs 1 kg or 25 kg doesn’t factor into the licence.
The FAA did a study earlier this year to determine the damage caused by typical consumer drones, such as the popular DJI Phantoms, falling from the sky. They dropped Phantom 3s from a height of up to 400 ft onto crash test dummies and found that “the risks of a catastrophic head injury were less than five percent in an impact with a 1.2-kilogram unmanned vehicle.” Obviously, larger, heavier drones pose a far greater risk to people, other aircraft and infrastructure. It is these bigger aircraft flying high risk operations, such as over people and in controlled airspace, on which the CAA should be focussing their regulatory efforts.
To the CAA’s credit, they acknowledge many of their shortcomings and say they intend making forward-thinking changes to the legislation. Albert Msithini, Manager: UAS Department at the CAA, recognises that part of their mandate is to promote development in the industry, but says the challenge is not to compromise safety.
Nevertheless, when Part 101 was rolled out, Ms Poppy Khosa, the Director of Civil Aviation, said that they should be updated 12 months later to accommodate developments and suggestions from industry. That was 24 months ago, and nothing has happened. Msithini blames this on high staff turnover, and the department being understaffed for the past 18 months. That initial 12-month deadline has been rolled over, and the goal now is that, again, in 12 months’ time, the amendments will be implemented.
A major proposed change will be the evaluation of an operator’s risk profile, which will be classified as high, medium or low risk. The suggestion is that low risk operators, for example, those who are operating within line of sight, flying small light aircraft, over unpopulated areas away from controlled airspace should have minimal regulation, while high risk operators, who will be doing the opposite, will have to abide by ROC requirements that will closely resemble those currently in place for all commercial drone operators.
Linked to this is the ‘Concept of Operation’ (CONOPS), where the CAA will focus on the operation as a whole to determine the licensing requirements of the pilots, the safety procedures, the drones that can be used and the air rules to be followed. For many operators, this should reduce the burdens associated with the current ROC and align licensing requirements and the skills of pilots with the type of flying that is to be carried out.
Other additions to the regulations that, according to Msithini, the CAA would like to implement are: oversight of RPAS Design Organisations (RDO), production organisations, maintenance organisations and Continued Airworthiness Maintenance Organisations (CAMO). A worry is that as these regulations are implemented, the industry will become further restricted. Whether this is the case will depend on industry’s involvement with the CAA and the writing of legislation. The risk profiling of operators and the CONOPS proposal is the kind of regulatory development that is necessary in the rapidly advancing drone industry, and suggests a willingness on behalf of CAA to engage with industry and worldwide trends. The hope is that the CAA puts words into action – quickly.