Picture: Keith Srakocic/AP/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

DURBAN - You may have bought them on sale during Black Friday, or they may be on your list of festive presents to buy – but one of the most sought-after gifts this year could land you in jail.

Drones, defined as a remote-piloted aircraft system (RPAS), have become increasingly popular and affordable, but experts have warned that people should not confuse them with toy aircraft and unknowingly break aviation laws.

“The confusion around the two has led to many people unintentionally breaking aviation and other laws. These accidental incidences can leave one with a hefty fine or a criminal record. So before you go on a bargain-hunting spree for the niftiest flying gadget, first familiarise yourself with RPAS laws. In certain instances, RPAS laws are applicable to all types of aircraft including toy aircraft, model aircraft and a remotely piloted aircraft,” said Kabelo Ledwaba, spokesperson for the SA Civil Aviation Authority (Sacaa), the body regulating and enforcing civil aviation safety and security.

Drones bought and used for private and personal use do not need a licence to be operated. Drones purchased for commercial gain need to be licensed, and the person operating the drone needs to have a pilot’s licence. Information on the licensing and accredited training schools can be obtained from Sacaa. 

Drones used either personally or commercially are both subject to the same aviation regulations which include not flying the aircraft more than 45m above the surface or within a radius of 10km from an airport and not flying the aircraft adjacent to or above a nuclear power plant, prison, police station, crime scene, court of law, national key point or strategic installation. Other rules include avoiding flying the aircraft, even a toy aircraft, 50m or closer to any person or group of persons without permission, or if it weighs more than 7kg.

Ledwaba said contravention of these laws could result in jail time and/or a R50 000 fine. “As much as drones are cool gadgets, they also pose risks, and if not operated in line with applicable laws, may cause a collision with other aircraft, with possible fatal results. Drones can also cause damage to property or injury to members of the public.

“Given the low cost and availability of these aircraft, it is possible that errant individuals may easily obtain and utilise these aircraft in an unsafe manner, thus presenting a risk to other aviators and the public. Regardless, the Sacaa will never condone nor tolerate any form of blatant disregard of the applicable rules,” he said. 

Ledwaba also pointed out that some drones were made with uncertified and, often, untraceable hardware and software.

“The failure rate of some of these aircraft are indeterminable, as there are currently no civil certification standards available anywhere in the world. Although these aircraft are much smaller and lighter than existing manned aircraft, their presence in the skies still presents a significant risk to other airspace users, persons, and property on the ground. A collision of an RPAS and a helicopter or a jet full of passengers could lead to a catastrophic accident,” he said.

Nico van Rooyen, director of DC Geomatics Drone Services, said he liaised with the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of Southern Africa (Cuaasa), which advises on matters relating to RPAS.

“The KZN drone association is being turned into the Durban chapter of Cuaasa, and this will give KZN drone enthusiasts a platform to share concerns and suggestions on matters relating to drones. Information can be channelled to the national board. Drones are very specialised, so you must know what you want to do with it before you buy it,” said Van Rooyen.

The Independent on Saturday