Prosecution looms for SA drone law offenders

Unauthorised drone in South Africa has not reached the levels of this Gatwick Airport incident yet – but there have been times where drones have flown into areas where they had no legal right to, or have been used for purposes that they were not authorised to carry out.

A drone flew around an area where fire-fighting helicopters were operating in Cape Town last year; its pilot apparently oblivious to the danger he was posing for the manned aircraft working to extinguish a raging inferno, just because he wished to have a closer look.

Until a few days ago, these activities would have gone with a ticking off on social media at worst – but now suspect drone law breakers will find themselves defending themselves in a court of law.

This follows the addition of new charge codes relating to drone offences onto the South Africa Police Services database. The offences are twenty in total, and cover issues that include unauthorised operation, commercial operation without valid certification; flying in controlled airspace, endangering people other aircraft; carrying illegal payloads, unauthorised night time flights; as well as flying a drone beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight.

There is more information about the offences, and you can find more here. They and any subsequent punishment resulting from prosecution will be applied in accordance with the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Regulations which governs the use of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems; as well as the Civil Aviation Act.

The enforcement guidelines were the works of collaboration between the SAPS and the Commercial Unmanned Aviation Association of Southern Africa (CUAASA) – the private drone body that stands to lose most from illegal drone use; the loses ranging from lose of legitimate business to unlicenced operators to frosty relations between drone operators and local civil aviation authorities.

“The police have written these codes into the Crime Administration System which now makes is possible to open a docket and investigate and take them to court,” said CUAASA spokesperson, Nico van Rooyen.

“What’s been happening in South Africa for the past five years has been unhealthy. We’ve got a large illegal part to the market that’s been fueled by the fact that there has been little enforcement and it’s left people with the perception that there are no regulations.”

CUAASA is working hard to clean up the drone space and root out illegal activities and operations that have resulted in long years of attrition between private drone operators and the national regulator.

To date, SACAA has issued out only 90 remote operator’s certificates out of hundreds of applications they have received. Part of the reasons why the regulating authority has been slow to issue out the ROC’s has been the red tape notorious in government operations – but also, illegal drone activity has been giving them pause for thought.

Companies like Dedrone have developed software and hardware to bring down drones flying in the wrong places

We know the reason why we even exist as an online publication cheering the rise of the drone industry in Africa has been because of all the amazing ways drone technology has been applied in many industries and made life easier for everyday operations – healthcare delivery, security, mining, agriculture; just to mention a few industrial applications – and created new careers and employment along the way.

But for every action, there is a reaction.

There are instances where we had to cover criminal activities where people smuggled stuff into jails or across borders using drones; brought a whole premier league match to a standstill for over thirty minutes; or disturbed the peaceful existence of nesting birds in their natural habitat.

The most famous example is of course the one in England where a drone caused a nuisance when it flew in the vicinity of Gatwick Airport in 2018 – at Christmas time to say the least – pausing danger to aircraft and causing massive flight delays and derailing holiday plans for thousands of people.

Drone idiots are the reason why anti-drone software and hardware solution providers like Dedrone exist.

With such an abundance of drone mis-applications to point to, regulating authorities would naturally be hesitant to trust and give license to a technological innovation where there is real danger that wrong use could result in catastrophe.

That is why CUAASA and other private players willing to operate their drones within the legal bounds have been working hard with the local police and civil aviation authorities to stamp out unlawful drone activity.

In South Africa at least, these law breakers can now be legally pursued and prosecuted.

“This has been a long time coming and it will be interesting to see how it lands in various camps it affects,” said Kim James, director at drone services company UAV Aerial Works and member of the CUAASA Executive Committee.

“In February 2022 Commercial Unmanned Aerial Association of Southern Africa (CUAASA) approved an Enforcement Guide for private drone use and illegal operations and SAPS implemented new charge codes which will now aid criminal cases to be opened against anyone contravening Part 101.

“This means that a hobbyist may fly a drone within strict rules; essentially, they can fly for fun in their own back yard. Anything else would be deemed commercial if the drone is operated for interest, profit or gain; and this requires operation under a commercial ROC.

“Previously these were deemed grey areas, and in some instances, the illegal drone users taunted the enforcement teeth the SACAA or SAPS may or may not have had at the time. This has now been clarified and anyone who contravenes any part of Part 101, is liable to a criminal charge and SAPS has 20 charge codes to execute on this.

“The players who will most likely fall foul of the regulations and will be first to made examples of are: retailers who sell drones without the prerequisite regulation information; and Operators/Pilots who do not operate according to the full ROC requirements.”

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