Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

It was a story that captured the world’s imagination — emergency blood supplies delivered to remote locations in Rwanda by drone. A joint initiative between the government and a technology company called Zipline used drones to overcome delivery problems and save lives.

The 2018 story prompted renewed interest in the application of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) or drones. SA operators say this particular success story relies on a specific set of conditions which wouldn’t apply here, but the consensus seems to be that red tape is holding the industry back, limiting experimentation towards innovative uses.

In this country, drones are used commercially for surveying and data collection in mining, agriculture, property and construction — plus image and video processing. This is managed by the SA Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which requires commercial operators to have a remote operator certificate (ROC) and a licence for each pilot and each drone.

To qualify for the ROC, companies must also produce a comprehensive technical manual on operational compliance.

Gary Mortimer, the editor of sUAS News, a popular digital publication on unmanned aviation, says: "The issue with SA regulation is twofold. It takes too long to get anything done, and the cost is stopping people coming in at an entry level." Mortimer believes Australia provides an excellent example of simpler regulation. "There, if your craft weighs less than 2kg you just need to tell the authority that you are operating commercially. This allows people to start cheaply and see if their drone business idea is feasible."

Warren Witte is a co-founder of Integrated Aerial Systems (IAS), an ROC holder that works in mining, mapping, agriculture and film. He says: "It took us 21 months to get fully licensed, and that was doing everything according to the CAA spec. We expected this to be a six-month process but we think there is a capacity issue."

Mortimer and Witte are pro-regulation in principle, and Witte says IAS has a good relationship with CAA staff it has dealt with. "But ... to get a single aircraft licensed [is time-consuming]. Some [licensed operators] are waiting eight to 12 months to get a standard drone approved and added to their licence. If we want to scale up our business for two months’ time, we literally cannot do it," he adds.

According to Witte, pursuing IAS’s full licensing cost it two years without income. "This meant starting off financially on the back foot." Witte argues that as a result "there is absolutely no transformation in the drone sector. I don’t think there is one fully licensed, black-owned drone company in SA today. Many existing operators were already entrenched in the manned aviation space. Someone coming from a disadvantaged background, without aviation experience or the resources to throw at this for months, is going to face an unbelievable challenge to become a legal operator."

The CAA provides an open list of all ROC holders. Currently 37 companies are listed. Realistically, then, there is an untold number of commercial users operating illegally. Spokesperson Kabelo Ledwaba says limited private use — such as using a drone on your own property — doesn’t require a pilot’s licence or registration. On the commercial side, he says: "Any notion or suggestion that … the amount the CAA charges for its approval processes is exorbitant is simply flawed. The CAA was not designed to be a profit-making entity. The amount ... for processing licence/approval applications is negligible and barely covers administrative and related costs."

The CAA’s list of fees includes: adding an aircraft to the ROC at R790; initial issuing of the ROC at R3,960; and certificates of approval for the operations manual at R3,990. Several hourly costs are listed, including evaluation of the manual at R750 an hour.

"The crux of the matter," says Ledwaba, "is that the quality of the documentation submitted has a bearing on how quickly the approval process is finalised. The fact that some owners may not have [a] background in aviation could also be one factor that contributes to submission of documentation that does not meet the set standards."

Some sources the FM spoke to talk about paying R200,000-R300,000 to get everything submitted, approved and certified, including third-party costs.

After registration, there are limitations based on privacy and safety concerns, such as not flying near an airport and written permission from municipalities, traffic departments or harbour masters.

Flying over private homes requires permission from every homeowner. This can limit the cost-effectiveness of smaller jobs, reduce the time-saving aspect of using drones, and in some cases put legal use out of the reach of smaller operators.

Johnny Miller is the founder of africanDrone, a nonprofit organisation that helps "African drone pioneers" with skills development, seed funding and advocacy. Miller says: "Drones are becoming so safe with improved sensors, geofencing and better batteries; they simply don’t fall out of the sky any more. In the past two to three years, drones have come a long way.

"There has been no recorded downing of any aircraft with a drone strike anywhere in the world. Private and public entities are managing air traffic and drones in the air in real time. So there are multiple reasons why you could agitate for deregulation and still keep manned aviation safe."