CUAASA warns of unauthorised drone activity amid Cape Town blaze

The Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of Southern Africa (CUAASA) has reminded drone owners to adhere to the legal parameters of drone operations, following the emergence on social media of a drone video of a fire that engulfed parts of Cape Town in South Africa last Sunday and Monday.

Fire authorities in the city finally brought the blaze under control on Monday – more than 24 hours since it started near Devil’s Peak mountain and caused a student evacuation at the University of Cape Town’s library; destroying a significant part of the university library in the process.

While fire-fighting operations were still in progress – including helicopters flying through the smoke with fire buckets, and fire trucks leading the charge from the ground – one resident took out his drone and recorded what was happening. The drone was also flown in a part of Table Mountain that is designated as a national park – and national parks are a no-fly zone for hobby drones in South Africa.

Going against this rule will attract legal ramifications for the perpetrator.

So, when the offending video was brought to their attention, CUAASA, were not amused.

“Whether individuals want to follow developments of a disaster situation or simply gain social media fame, they are in fact putting Public Safety Agency personnel in great danger,” the association said in a statement. “Over the last few days, there were up to five aerial fire-fighting helicopters operating at any one time in the area, and the person flying that specific drone would not have been able to hear or observe another helicopter approaching from another direction.

“An unlikely but possible C2 Link (the data link between the drone and its control station on the ground) loss might have also put the drone into an un-controlled flight directly into the path of the helicopter (the drone was filming).

“It needs to again be highlighted that airborne drones pose a substantial risk to manned aircraft; a drone colliding with a tail rotor or being ingested into an engine, could cause a catastrophic accident. It is therefore important to remind drone owners to follow the regulations and specifically not to fly their drone near aerodromes, controlled/restricted airspace, or disaster situations.”

The South Africa Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) Part 101 rules forbids drones to fly in the vicinity of manned aircraft, in national parks, or over people in public places; and this incident has come at a time when relations between the national aviation regulator and the drone industry were just starting to thaw after years of attrition.

If the scale of the danger posed by the authorised drone was not clear enough, a helicopter pilot was involved with the fire fighting operation put it in plain terms.

“This is a major concern for our safety as pilots,” said the pilot. “The visibility due to the smoke is minimal, thus spotting a drone at the low levels we operate at would be impossible. We urge the public and drone hobbyists to please stay clear of active fire while manned aircraft are in the vicinity.”

It is no wonder that the association would want to quickly nip anything that threaten their hard-earned good grace with SACAA into jeopardy.

“CUAASA has reached out to the individual who posted the social media content,” the statement went on, adding that, based on the severity of this case, authorities were considering enforcing parts of the Part 101 Civil Aviation Rules.

“The individual responded apologetically and now understands the risks posed to the nearby aircraft. Flying safely and according the SACAA hobby rules is paramount to keeping the skies safe.

“It should also be noted that legal commercial drone operators will most likely be operating in and around the disaster area, now that the fire is reported to have been contained. Commercial drone operators will be conducting aerial post loss assessments for insurance purposes and the like (and they do so with) permission to fly in controlled airspace and radio contact with manned aircraft traffic for safe and legal operation.”


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