Durban - Aviatiors in Durban and elsewhere in South Africa have warned of catastrophe if drones in the city’s skies are not controlled.
Easily bought off the shop shelf, the unregulated use of drones is posing grave danger.
The country’s highest body for civil safety, the South African Civil Aviation Authority, has called for greater awareness, saying that a failure to do so could lead to a “catastrophic disaster” between drones and passenger jets.
A newly formed group, the KZN Drone Association, wants the industry regulated and monitored as the use of drones grows “exponentially”.
In the US, the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the recent crash of an aircraft, allegedly caused when the pilot tried to avoid a drone.
In two local incidents, Durban pilots were caught off-guard when drones came into their flight path, which could have caused their aircraft to crash.
Lucy Erasmus, the chief flying instructor at BAC Helicopters, said she had been covering the Dusi two weeks ago, transporting the race paramedic and a race safety and security officer. She was flying over one of the main spectator areas at uMzinyathi, where a crowd of about 150 people were gathered.
“We were playing an important role in the race by transporting the safety and security officer and a paramedic. We were flying low and slow to keep an eye on what was happening below.
“Suddenly, in my peripheral vision, I saw a flash of white. It was a drone which I believe was being operated by one of the spectators. The drone flew above my helicopter. I was shocked because had the drone been pulled through the helicopter disc, it would have caused damage to the blades causing us to lose control and crash. At that moment, I instantly fixed my sight on a spot on the banks where it would have been safe to land. It was quite a shock. Clearly the person manning the drone did not know the rules, which are that you cannot fly a drone in a public area, or near people,” she said.
In another incident, helicopter pilot Etienne Bruwer recounted his close call with a drone near Sezela on the South Coast.
“I was out with Dr Bruce Mann from the Oceanographic Research Institute, conducting a survey of the number of shore anglers for research. We flew from Virginia airport towards the south. At the beach we were flying a bit lower than usual, and suddenly up ahead I saw a drone about 50m ahead of me.
“I pulled my helicopter up higher because I was worried that it was one of those drones the fishermen use to take their bait line further out in the waters, and if we got caught in the line or hit the drone, it would not have worked out well. I got a bit of a fright, actually,” said Bruwer.
Brad Mears, of the KZN Drone Association, said he and other drone operators were working together to ensure that everyone was educated on how to use drones in the correct and legal manner.
“Drones are here to stay, but the industry needs to be formalised and legally compliant. Safety is the key, and something we need to keep in mind as this part of aviation grows exponentially,” said Mears.
“Everyone, from the importer to the distributor, the retailer, the customer and someone who wants to hire an operator of a drone, needs to understand how to use a drone. There needs to be an education and awareness campaign around the use of drones. There is a plethora of illegal operators,” he said.
According to the CAA regulations, a drone, which falls under the category of an unmanned or remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS), if bought for personal use, can only be operated in your private space, not near an aerodrome, nor a public space or 50m near people, a structure or a building.
It cannot be used over a public road, along the length of a public road or at a distance of less than 50m from a public road. The device cannot be flown 120m above the surface or within a radius of 10km from an airport, and the drone cannot be flown adjacent to or above a nuclear power plant, prison, police station, crime scene, court of law, national key point or strategic installation.
If the drone is to be used for commercial purposes or business, the company using the drone needs to obtain a remote operating certificate (ROC), and the person operating the drone needs to obtain a remote pilot licence (RPL).
Jacques van Heerden, who runs a shop that sells and repairs drones, said: “Drones are affordable toys, there is no sense of accountability or responsibility when using these devices, but they can be harmful if they crash, this is why it needs to be regulated.”
Kabelo Ledwaba, a spokesman for the South African Civil Aviation Authority, said drones had become a cause for concern.
“The main concern for regulators such as the Civil Aviation Authority is the increasing number of unregistered and unapproved RPAS operations taking to the skies illegally and being potentially operated by unlicensed individuals. It is estimated that for every registered and licensed remotely piloted aircraft taking to the skies, there are two or three more doing so illegally. The rapid advancement of this technology and its potential use in commercial and other activities make RPAS appealing to many prospective operators. The low cost and easy availability of RPAS mean that anyone can acquire and use these aircraft, and therein lies the concern, because some owners may use these aircraft in a manner that contravenes civil aviation regulations and other laws,” he said.
“To ensure safety, this situation requires unquestionable compliance with regulations, and most importantly that the individuals operating the aircraft or flying devices to be competent and in possession of a valid pilot’s licence. The situation also requires these flying devices to be airworthy and registered with the South Africa Civil Aviation Authority,” he said.
Of major concern, he said, was the many RPAS enthusiasts and entrepreneurs who had no or limited knowledge of the aviation industry, and thus remained oblivious to the serious risks they posed to other airspace users by not abiding by the applicable civil aviation regulations.
“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 disaster,” said Ledwaba.
RPAS operators who fail to adhere to civil aviation regulations could receive a 10-year prison sentence or a fine of R50 000, or both, he said.
The Independent on Saturday