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Civil aviation authorities are scrambling to regulate the use of drones or unmanned aircraft that are taking to the skies in a “tsunami”, putting commercial airlines and the safety and privacy of the public at risk.
The drones can be used for law enforcement, agriculture, wildlife management, search and rescue operations, 3D mapping, the sale of property and marketing, as well as for fun.
The latest aviation journal, Airnews, reported that fans at last year’s Oppikoppi music festival in Limpopo were able to use their smartphones to have their beer delivered by drones to their seats.
Also, at the recent Sharks Super 15 rugby match against the Reds in Durban, security officials were rushed to the outer fields to find the operator of a drone that was directed into the stadium, hovering over the game to take photographs.
Novashni Chetty, the Sharks spokeswoman, confirmed the incident saying the drone was confiscated
. She said the use of drones at the stadium was prohibited.
Wildlife authorities have also identified drones as a way to fight to save rhinos from rampant poaching in the Kruger National Park and in KwaZulu-Natal parks.
Musa Mntambo, a spokesman for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, confirmed that they had been used in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.
But, on Wednesday, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) released a statement saying that they were cracking down as using drones was illegal.
SA National Parks (SANParks) spokesman Rey Thakuli said they were aware of the aviation authority’s ban and would abide by it.
However, he said, the use of sophisticated drones would be used in the Kruger National Park once the regulations were published.
Thakuli said a tourist was caught recently using a drone to track game in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
Poppy Khoza, the director of Civil Aviation, said: “The SACAA has not given any concession or approval to any organisation, individual, institutions or government entity to operate drones. Those who are flying any type of unmanned aircraft are doing so illegally.”
She said drones were new to civil aviation and their operation and purchase were still not controlled or regulated.
“The SACAA has allocated the necessary resources to ensure a speedy integration of drones into South African airspace,” she said.
The unmanned aircraft, which were once used exclusively in military operations particularly in the US, are now freely available on the internet and in malls.
The price starts at R10 000 and they are the “rage” for hobbyists, particularly photographers.
Steve McCurrach, a professional photographer from Durban who uses a drone to take aerial photographs, said they were a liability.
He said they posed a particular threat to commercial airlines.
“Drones are usually remotely operated on a laptop… The operator can direct the drone… out of sight which means they only see what the drone is seeing. If there is another aircraft in its vicinity they cannot see it or hear it. Some of these things can go as high as 2 000 feet. You know what happens to an aircraft when it hits a bird, imagine if it hits one of these?”
Further, McCurrach said, air traffic controllers were unable to detect the drones on radar.
“At least 30 people in a weekend in Durban are putting this machinery into the sky. There is no way of policing it. Imagine if that drone in the rugby stadium had malfunctioned. There are four propellers on that thing. It’s big. If it had crashed into the crowd, people would have been seriously hurt,” he said.