Cape Town - It’s just after sunrise in Cape Town and the clear skies start to fill with hundreds of what can be described as gleaming robotic birds, flocking to various parts of the city as the working day begins.
It’s the year 2022, and these drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), are vital to individuals and businesses alike. They deliver medical supplies, cargo and packages for businesses – and even pizzas.
Circling above the N2, a metro police UAS tracks a hijacked vehicle and leads ground units directly to a chop shop. This may sound like something out of a Philip K Dick science fiction novel, but a drone-driven society is closer than you might think.
Drones first started appearing in controversial military applications in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but civilian usage has increased, especially as cheaper variants have become available. While the potential uses for drones excite those in the private sector, their proliferation and largely unregulated use raises security and privacy concerns.
For instance, what stops a drone pilot from flying a UAS strapped with a bomb into a stadium full of people? Or how do you stop a camera-equipped drone from penetrating national key points or getting over the walls of homes of private citizens?
While there is no drone-specific legislation in place, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) says drones operating within our airspace without its approval are doing so illegally.
Yuveer Karunchand has been flying drones since 2009 to pursue his interest in aerial photography. He says his first drone was bought off the shelf from a hobby store and cost R3 000, the price of an entry-level craft. Depending on the spec, a drone can cost more than R100 000, although these types are seldom found in retail stores and can vary in size from half a metre in width to the size of a full aircraft.
The drone Karunchand flies is customised to meet his needs as an aerial photographer and modified to carry GoPro cameras. “I got into flying for fun and for photography. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed,” says Karunchand who used to fly radio- controlled aircraft.
Interestingly, authorities are yet to draw a clear distinction between drones and radio-controlled aircraft. While the latter are considered toys, they have very similar capabilities to drones.
“The range on drones is one to two kilometres depending on the model and they can fly to a height of 500m,” says Karunchand, who is able to monitor his drone’s movements with a live video feed. Some drones can carry a pay load of three to five kilograms.
Karunchand says drones have a number of positive uses in the civilian sector, but believes these automated craft need to be regulated.
“Drones can help with traffic congestion, animal surveying, looking for poachers… but there need to be guidelines that say where you can fly, what the rules are,” he says. “There are a lot of amateurs starting off and you don’t want things going wrong. You can really hurt someone with one of these if you don’t know what you’re doing. Also there’s the issue of privacy.”
Drone pilot Leon Breutenbach who works in the film industry agrees.
“We’ve had people do all sorts of things with drones like fly them where they are not supposed to like over rugby games, so yes, there need to be regulations,” he says.
Breutenbach’s drone is highly modified and cost about R120 000 to build.
He believes banning drones would be a step in the wrong direction.
“The local film industry is one of the industries that will suffer as a result because drones are being used quite extensively What you will find is people taking their projects to other countries where it’s allowed and we will lose out here.”
Meanwhile, authorities are caught in virgin legal territory when it comes to drones.
“The SACAA has never issued any specific notice or regulation banning the use of unmanned aircraft systems. The current regulations prescribe specific requirements for operating an aircraft in the South African airspace. To date, no UAS has been able to comply with these requirements,” said spokesman Kabelo Ledwaba.
“It should also be noted that the SACAA has not given any concession or approval to any organisation, individual, institution or government entity to operate a UAS within the civil aviation airspace. Those that are flying any type of unmanned aircraft are doing so illegally.”
The South African government, like most other governments, is yet to decide on guidelines.
“It should also be noted that the unmanned aircraft systems sector constitutes a relatively new component of the civil aviation framework,” said Ledwaba. He said authorities can’t “turn a blind eye to the potentially catastrophic hazards that unmanned aircraft systems have”.
In the US, commercial operation of drones is authorised by the Federal Aviation Administration on a case-by-case basis and recently, film-makers have sought exemptions for their use.
Already, online retail giant amazon.com has indicated it wishes to deliver packages using drones and hopes to do so by next year.
And last month, Francesco’s Pizzeria in Mumbai became the first pizza joint to deliver a pizza using a drone.
But local businesses will have to wait until at least March – when the SACAA will release its guidelines for drone usage – to know whether they, too, can take to the skies.