Myths about the new regulations for drones

On 17 May 2015 new regulations for operating RPAS (drones) in South Africa were announced. These new regulations take effect from 1 July 2015. There has been some confusion about the regulations, giving rise to myths that are now going viral. This article addresses some of the common myths going around about the new drone regulations for South Africa. Here each myth is exposed by the facts.

Myths about the new regulations for dronesMyth: All drone operators must have a pilot’s licence

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

Myth: The RPL drone pilot licence will cost R150 000, similar to a PPL

Not true… This crazy figure was invented, and later published in the media, as some started to believe the nonsense. The true cost of the RPL licence is nowhere close to that of a full size PPL. How much will it cost then? Indications are a few hundred Rands for the online theory exam (only one exam for RPL), 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.

Myth: A Medical Class 4 is required to fly a drone

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

It is only when you need to fly B-VLOS (beyond visual line of sight) or if you fail the medical self-assessment, that you need to do a full Medical Class 4. The majority of drone pilots simply complete the self-assessment.

Myth: The requirement for English language proficiency is racist and stupid

Not true… English is the standard language required in aviation worldwide. The test is done to ensure you are able to communicate in English.

Myth: No flying closer than 50 m from people – so I cannot film people?

Not true… The regulations allow private and commercial pilots to fly closer than 50 m from people if those people are part of the operation and under the control of the drone pilot. So you certainly can fly close to people under your control, but cannot fly close to public or people not under your control.

Also, commercial drone operations will be able to get special permission to fly close to people to accomplish their work, and this will be described in the operations manual, including mitigation of risk.

Myth: No flying closer than 50 m from buildings – so I cannot film buildings?

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

Also, commercial drone operations will be able to get special permission to fly close to buildings to accomplish their work, and this will be described in the operations manual, including mitigation of risk.

Myth: No flying closer than 10 km from airport – rules out most towns and cities

Not quite true… The regulations allow commercial pilots with an air band radio, and approved ROC to fly closer than 10 km from airports, provided they communicate with the ATC in controlled airspace. Also, commercial drone operations will be able to get special permission to fly close to airports to accomplish their work, and this will be described in the operations manual, including mitigation of risk.

Private (hobby) drone pilots will not be able to fly closer than 10 km from an airport. Even if the airport gives them permission this is not allowed in the new regulations. So if you see a drone flying just about anywhere in a town or city, if it’s not a licensed commercial drone with clear registration marks, chances are it is an illegal private operator.

This is nothing new, as model aircraft have also for a long time been restricted from flying closer than 5 nm (9,3 km) from any airports. Special flying fields have been approved by the SACAA for members of SAMAA (South African Model Aircraft Association) to use under controlled conditions. These fields often fall within the 5 nm limit from airports, but are allowed under special permission.

Myth: Drones can fly up to 400 feet above the ground

Not entirely true… 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 300 m lateral distance of the drone.

In other words, as high as the trees or towers in the area. Often this would be much lower than 400 feet allowed in VLOS. Only commercial drone pilots can fly in VLOS (up to 400 feet above ground level (AGL)).

Myth: Drones are cheap, small and easy to fly

Not true… While the consumer market is flooded with small and cheap drones, that does not mean drones are small and cheap. Many commercial drones are quite a bit larger, and many weigh between 5-20 kg, and could cause substantial damage when they crash.

While most drones are easy to learn to fly, much like it’s easy to learn to drive a car, and are prone to failure. The higher-end systems are generally more reliable, but are also prone to failure if not built and maintained to a high standard.

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. Taking the time to learn to fly properly, and without relying on GPS and stabilisers, makes for a far more competent pilot.

Myth: Full-sized aircraft always fly above 500 feet anyway – so there is no chance of collision with drones

Not true… Full sized aircraft actually often fly lower than 500 feet AGL. 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. Once you start to look up every time you hear an aircraft overhead, you may be surprised at
just how often that aircraft is flying very low.

It is the responsibility of the drone pilot to give way to manned aircraft. Some pilots make use of a spotter to help identify low-flying aircraft in the area, and to help with situational awareness.

Myth: A drone is just a model aircraft with a camera on it

Not true… In fact many drones do not have cameras or any such sensors. 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.

Myth: A remote control helicopter or remote control airplane cannot be a drone – model aircraft have been around for many years

Not true… Some try to hide behind this, and falsely claim that their model aircraft are not drones at all, so the new regulations do not apply to them. But 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 (drone) is what the intended use is.

Model aircraft are only for recreational purposes, and cannot be used commercially. Model aircraft cannot be registered with SACAA, and are very restricted as to where they can be operated legally.

Myth: Drone regulations are much more restrictive than model aircraft regulations

Not true… Actually 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). Model aircraft may not be operated for commercial purposes, but RPAS (drones) may be used commercially (with correct licences).

Myth: The new regulations must then also apply to paper airplanes and toys

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

Myth: I will then simply classify my DJI phantom (or similar) as a “toy”

Not true… The regulations already clearly classify RPAS (drones), model aircraft and toys. The DJI Phantom (or similaraircraft) certainly is an RPAS (drone), and cannot be classified as a toy or a model aircraft.

Myth: The SACAA will never be able to enforce this – nobody is going to catch me anyway

Not true… The SACAA has indicated they have an enforcement plan, and an education plan to ensure the public and police and other enforcement agencies are aware of, and empowered to enforce, the new regulations.

Myth: My clients don’t care – I will still have lots of business without an RPL drone licence

Not true… Clients will not want to take on the additional risk of employing an unlicensed drone pilot. It will also become very difficult to get proper insurance cover for unlicensed commercial drone pilots. Clients will seek out seasoned professionals with proper licences and paperwork, as well as good insurance and public liability cover.

Myth: The drone licence is going to be impossibly hard and complicated to get

Not true… Some have already started working on complying with the new regulations for commercial drones, and have already achieved many of the requirements. The process may very well have teething problems, and it could be that the first few applications will take months to process. Effort will be required, and serious business people will put in the required time and resources to operate legally.

These are just a few of the myths out there, creating a lot of confusion for drone owners and members of the public. For a clear explanation of the new drone regulations in South Africa, and the process to comply, visit: (an unbiased and fact driven information service for all interested in drones).

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