Introduction

The unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV), or as it is often called remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), industry is set for take-off in South Africa. Whilst in the past RPA operators were flying under the radar given the lack of regulatory oversight, RPAs are now the next “small” thing in the aerospace industry.

It is rightly so given that the global forecast for the worldwide RPA industry (military and civilian) is approximately USD 90 billion over the next ten years. Whilst the military segment of RPAs dominate the market at present, the commercial and civil markets are emerging as the game changers. This is directly as a result of regulatory framework being created by the relevant authorities to provide a platform for the commercial and civil segments to grow. The most common commercial uses of RPAs are at present aerial surveys, film making, search and rescue operations, crowd monitoring etc. However, as technology develops the use of RPAs will also develop and with that the role of RPA regulators will become more important in order to maintain the fine balance between ensuring safety to the general public on the one hand and providing scope for growth of the industry on the other hand.

To this end, the purpose of this article is to analyse the South African remotely piloted aircraft systems regulations (which became effective as of 1 July 2015) in order to establish whether the South Africa Civil Aviation Authority has created such a balance.

Overview of Regulations

In general, the Regulations are based on a safety first approach by allowing RPA operators to fly their systems within visual line-of-sight (VLOS) at specific altitudes. However, they have also created scope for future development by creating a Class for RPA operations beyond visual line-of-sight with no altitude limit. On the current wording of the Regulations it is unclear whether RPA operators will be allowed to operate this class of RPA, but more on this aspect below.

Application

  • The Regulations apply to all commercial, corporate, non-profit and private RPA operations. They do not apply to autonomous unmanned aircraft or any other aircraft which cannot be managed on a real-time basis during flight
  • Five different classes of RPAs have been created ranging from RPAs weighing less than 1.5 kilograms to RPAs weighing more than 150 kg, each class having a respective limitation on line-of-sight, energy and height. In regard to the line-of-sight limitations, there are five ways in which an RPA may be operated namely: (i) radio line-of-sight; (ii) visual line-of-sight (meaning an operation below 400ft above ground level in which the remote pilot maintains direct and unaided visual contact with the RPA at a distance not exceeding 500 meters); (iii) restricted VLOS (meaning an operation within 500m of the remote pilot and below the height of the highest obstacle within 300m of the RPA, in which the remote pilot maintains direct unaided visual contact with the RPA to manage its flight and meet separation and collision avoidance responsibilities); (iv) extended VLOS (meaning an operation below 400ft above ground level in which an observer maintains direct and unaided visual contact with the remotely piloted aircraft at a distance not exceeding 1000m from the pilot; and (v) beyond VLOS (meaning an operation in which the remote pilot cannot maintain direct unaided visual contact with the remotely piloted aircraft to manage its flight and to meet separation and collision avoidance responsibilities visually). RPA operations of extended VLOS must make use of an “observer” to assist the RPA pilot)
  • Except for RPAs which are operated in restricted VLOS, all other RPAs are to be equipped with an altimeter that is capable of displaying to the operator the altitude and height of the RPA above ground level
  • At present the Regulations apply to Class 1 and Class 2 RPAs. Given the ambiguous wording of the applicability section, it appears as if there may be scope to argue that the Regulations also apply to Class 3, 4 and 5 RPAs (if consideration is given to the Regulations and the technical standards as a whole, it seems that Class 3, 4 and 5 operations have been catered for)

Private operators

  • Private RPA operators are restricted to operate only Class 1A or 1B RPAs in restricted VLOS
  • For the most part private operators are exempted from compliance with the Regulations except for Part 5 which pertains to the operations of the RPA itself
  • Private operators are not allowed to inter alia operate above 400ft of the surface, within a radius of 10km from an aerodrome, or adjacent to or above a nuclear power plant, a prison, police station, crime scene, court of law, national key point or strategic installations
  • Whilst an RPA pilot for a private operation is not required to have a remote pilot licence he/she has a duty to operate the RPA safely and in such a way that the safe separation from other aircraft is maintained and that adequate obstacle clearance is ensured
  • It appears that a private operator wishing to operate any RPA from Class 2 and above will have to apply to the Director of the South African Civil Aviation Authority for approval, will have to obtain an RPA licence and will not be exempted from the rest of the Regulations

Commercial, corporate and non-profit operators

  • Commercial, corporate and non-profit operators of Class 1 and Class 2 RPAs (also Class 3, 4 and 5), must comply with all the Regulations in order to operate legally
  • It is useful at this stage to point out that operating an RPA outside of the regulatory framework (ie illegally) may lead to the imposition of administrative monetary fines ranging from 5,000 to 160,000 Rand and may also include, depending on the violation, criminal charges and could lead to the suspension and/or cancellation and licence and/or certificate issued by the CAA
  • The first step in order to operate legally is to obtain a RPA letter of approval from the Director. In order to do so, an operator must submit documentation regarding the standard to which the RPA was designed, alternatively documentation demonstrating a level of safety acceptable to the Director or documentation demonstrating the safety system as prescribed for in the technical standards
  • The second step is to apply for a certificate of registration for each respective RPA. If successful the Director will issue the operator with a certificate as well as a registration mark. The format and specification of the nationality mark of the RPA must comply with the technical standards
  • The third step is to apply for an RPA Operating Certificate. This entails an application to the Director which includes:
    • a copy of the certificate of registration of each RPA to be operated
    • a copy of the RPA letter of approval for each RPA to be operated
    • an original operations manual
  • In regard to the operations manual, it seems that the prospective operator must create a manual containing all the information required to demonstrate how the operator would ensure compliance with all the regulations and how safety standards will be applied and achieved. In addition a RPA operator must establish a system of record-keeping that allows adequate storage and reliable traceability of all activities. The technical standards are useful in order to determine the content of the operations manual
  • In addition to the above mentioned a prospective operator will have to:
    • develop and establish for approval to the Director a command and control link (C2) requirements safety case. The functions to be considered for the safety case shall include the downlink, telemetry and uplink of the C2 as well as the target values for each which will be an assessment of the continuity, integrity, availability and latency of the data link
    • develop and establish a safety management system, to include a process of identifying actual and potential safety hazards which will have to develop and implement remedial action necessary to maintain an acceptable level of safety, making provision for continuous and regular assessment of the appropriateness and effectiveness of safety management activities
  • As for security, the holder of an RPA Operating Certificate must conduct background checks and criminal record checks on all personnel recruited to handle, deploy and store RPAs. Moreover, the operator must designate a security coordinator responsible for the implementation, application and supervision of security control and must ensure that all personnel employed to handle, deploy or store an RPA have received security awareness training as prescribed in Civil Aviation Regulations Part 109
  • Lastly, the prospective operator must submit for approval a maintenance programme for the RPA. The maintenance of an RPA or component thereof must be carried out by the holder of a valid RPA Maintenance Technician licence for Class 3 RPAs and above. In respect of RPAs classified as class 2 and lower, the holder of the RPA Operating Certificate may perform the maintenance provided that the Director is satisfied of his/her or its ability to perform the required maintenance
  • An RPA Operating Certificate is valid for 12 months unless surrendered by the applicant or suspended by an authorised officer of the CAA. The holder of an RPA Operating Certificate must apply annually for a renewal of such certificate at least 60 days before it expires

Commercial operators

  • Not only are commercial operators required to have an RPA Operating Certificate (by implication this means completing the steps mentioned above) but they are also required to apply for an air service licence in terms of the Air Services Licensing Act No 115 of 1990 (“the ASL Act”). This in itself may present another hurdle before a commercial operator can operate legally
  • In terms of the ASL Act, no person may provide an air service unless it is provided under and in accordance with the terms and conditions of an air service licence issued to that person under the Act. An air service means any service operated by means of an aircraft for reward. An application for an air service licence must be made to the Air Service Licensing Council, which will issue a licence for the prescribed class of air service
  • In terms of the Domestic Air Services Regulations 1990 there are three classes of air services: I – scheduled air services; II – non-scheduled air services; and III – general air services. In addition there are various types of air services in respect of each class (for instance in respect of a class III licence there is, amongst other types, a type G3 – for aerial patrol, observation and surveys) as well as categories of aircraft (for instance category A4 – any aircraft, excluding a helicopter, with a maximum certified mass of 2,700 kilograms or less. Thus, for example, a commercial RPA operator providing advertising services will have to apply for a Class III, Type G2, Category A4 or H1 / H2 licence from the Air Service Licensing Council
  • In assessing an application for a licence, the Air Services Licensing Council must be satisfied that (i) the air service will be operated in a safe and reliable manner, (ii) if the applicant is a natural person he is a resident of the Republic of South Africa but if the applicant is a juristic person 75% of the voting rights in the applicant is held by residents of the Republic; (iii) the applicant will be in active and effective control of the air service; and (iv) the aircraft providing the air service is a South African aircraft as defined in the Civil Aviation Act
  • The holder of an air service licence is also obligated to have insurance cover depending on the class of air service. Commercial operators of RPAs will be obligated to have third party liability cover for RPAs in the sum of 500,000 Rand per RPA weighing 450kg or less (micro-light aeroplanes). The total third party liability may be insured as a combined single limit per any one occurrence
  • If at any time an air service licence holder fails to comply with any provision of the ASL Act, the Air Service Licensing Council may suspend or cancel the licence of a licence holder
  • Again, operating an air service in contravention of the Act or without the requisite approval of the Air Service Licensing Council may lead to a fine or imprisonment

Operations

  • All RPAs are to be operated by a duly qualified licensed pilot. There are three licence categories (aeroplane, helicopter, multi-rotor) with a relevant rating (VLOS, extended-VLOS and beyond-VLOS). A licence may be applied for by any person 18 years or older having the relevant medical certificate and having completed a theoretical examination, flight training and a skill test
  • As for the operation of the RPA itself, most operations (which include operations in controlled air space, releasing of objects in the vicinity of people etc) are restricted unless the operator has an RPA Operating Certificate and approval from the Director in its operations manual for the specific operation
  • In addition, no RPA shall be operated (except for Restrictive-VLOS) unless the pilot has an air-band radio in his possession tuned into the frequency applicable to the ATSU providing services or controlling airspace in the area of the intended operation. For VLOS, extendedVLOS and beyond-VLOS operations a pilot is obligated to make the required radio calls, by using the registration of the RPA as a call sign, to indicate the altitude, location and intended operation of the RPA in that area at such intervals as are required to ensure adequate separation from other aircraft. For operations in controlled airspace, the pilot must maintain radio contact with the relevant ATSU and acknowledge and execute such instructions as the ATSU may give
  • An RPA pilot is required to conduct pre-flight and flight preparations before commencing any RPA operation. The operator of an RPA also has to ensure that an appropriate flight folio is kept for each RPA in respect of each operation

Discussion

The Regulations appear to be comprehensive in nature, with the main focus being safety. On face value it seems as if the Regulations create unnecessary hurdles for RPA operators to comply with. However, given the complexities of RPA operations, the safety risks, as well as the “unknown factor”, the hurdles do not appear to be unreasonable.

The first real issue to be dealt with by regulators is the systematic introduction of RPAs into the general aviation airspace, which in the South Africa market plays a significant role. The major concerns from a general aviation perspective are the available safety technology for avoidance collision (especially mid-air collisions) when operating RPAs, more particularly operating RPAs beyondVLOS, what safety requirements will be enforced upon RPA operators and whether the existing safety technology can be relied upon. These are all important questions to be considered and answered by regulators and the RPA industry in general but in the interim regulators are more likely to apply a “belts and braces” approach to the regulation of RPA operators for the near future.

Overall the CAA’s attempt to create a regulatory framework within which RPA operators can operate safely and legally may be commended even if it errs on the side of safety, as this is arguably justified in the aviation industry. That being said, it only seems logical that as the RPA industry develops, the Regulations should be able to adapt accordingly. The question is whether the adaptability of the Regulations can keep up with the speed at which the industry develops. That is probably the biggest challenge facing the RPAs industry, and one which is essentially not within its control.