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All you need to know about commercial drones

Wondering why you don’t see drones everywhere, despite the intention of various media houses to use them for coverage purposes? Here’s why: It’s illegal. The South Africa Civil Aviation Authority  (CAA) doesn’t permit filming, crop-spraying, spying, tour-guiding, pizza delivery or any other commercial drone applications (you can, however, fly one privately). “But that’s unjust!” you may rail. “Why should the government stop businesses from plying their trades?” The CAA is charged with keeping the skies safe, and drone operators could pose a danger to commercial aircraft or spy on you illegally. On the other hand, South African businesses want the CAA to approve drone use stat, so they can stop operating quasi-illegally and start making money. So, who’s right? Who’s wrong? Here are the ABCs of commercial drone flight in the Southern Africa.

[title type=”h1″ class=””]What are these ‘drones’?[/title]

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First, a little terminology. The industry would prefer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), or any moniker except “drone,” but we’ll use the terms interchangeably. UAVs/drones are defined as any aircraft without a pilot aboard, but they can be broken down broadly into two categories: rotary drones — like the swarming KMel quadrotors or Amazon’s octacopter — and fixed-wing drones like the Puma. (We’re focusing on commercial models, notPredator-style military drones.) Like their civilian helicopter and airplane counterparts, each has its own strengths and weaknesses.

Rotary drones get the glory. For one, they make perfect camera platforms for stunning aerial shots, since they can hover and maneuver in any direction. While you may be familiar with the smartphone-guided Parrot AR Drone 2, other models — like the DJIPhantom series — are more common for commercial purposes. Starting at around R5999, the latter can pack a GoPro Hero 3 or its own camera, but if you want to carry a mirrorless, DSLR or cinema camera, you’ll need one of DJI’s expert cameras or models like the BeetleCopter orInfinite Jib — and a lot more money. Rotary copters also do real estate flyovers, journalism,herding, agriculture, deliveries and spying, to name just a few. The main drawbacks to copter drones are slower speeds and shorter range than fixed-wing models; even with battery extenders, most can’t run more than a half-hour.

[title type=”h1″ class=””]So why should you care?[/title]

The UAV industry is already pretty large despite the handicap of being arguably illegal. Once drones became powerful enough to hoist cameras, a cottage industry sprang up with services at a fraction the price of manned aerial photography. As a result, the Motion Picture Association alongside the South Afrian School of Motion Picture has requested exemptions to the current drone ban, citing “tangible economic benefits.” Media organisations have also demanded clarity after a journalist nearly lost his job filming footage from the Medi Clinic Heart hospital in Pretoria where the late Nelson Mandela was admitted  months before his death by drone. Another industry looking for a break is search and rescue, which has seen the CAA clamp down on drone operations. Simply put: The drone industry is already booming and could be worth multi-billions of dollars in the coming decade.

There are other tangible benefits to Joe Public besides prettier movies. A search-and-rescue drone could help find a missing loved one in a difficult-to-search area. They could also make it cheaper and faster to map your property, protect you from bad guys or spray your crops. The industry would also create jobs for drone pilots doing something less stressful than targeting terrorists.

On the other hand, if the CAA isn’t careful with the rules, drones could negatively impact your safety. For starters, it’s easy to imagine a package-laden Amazon copter dropping out of the sky and injuring or killing a bystander. The tightly controlled airspace system around airports is also vulnerable right down to ground level (drones are banned at any elevation in those areas). As illustrated by the “Miracle on the Hudson” aircraft, something as innocent as a bird can bring down a large aircraft. Officials fear that drones could easily be sucked into a jet engine and cause catastrophic failures. Despite the potential economic benefits of drones, a single accident would create a storm of negative publicity, particularly if it involved fatalities.

[title type=”h1″ class=””]Whats the fuss about?[/title]

Once the CAA does create new laws, the drone industry could really take off. It’s estimated that 2,500 UAVs could enter the system if they become legal. But the CAA’s sole mandate is keeping air travel safe for pilots and passengers, a duty it performs admirably. Given the complexity of the current airspace system, throwing tens of thousands of drones into the mix could create chaos. There have already been high-profile near misses between drones and commercial aircraft, including one incident that had the pilot actually bracing for a collision. In Vancouver, a drone fell while filming a movie scene (injuring nobody, luckily), which caused the city to temporarily ban the practice. That’s why CAA drone head Colin Jordaan has told the industry that he’s aware of the pressing need for clear rules, but the process “must take place incrementally and with the interest of safety first.”

Still, companies have chided the CAA for failing to meet its own regulation deadlines. Right now, many operate in limbo, aware they could be shut down at any time. One operator who received a warning told the CAA it could “piss off.” Adding to the anger, the CAA said that it would announce new rules this November, several years later than promised — and those rules could take several more years to implement.

Papi Mabele
Tech enthusiast at heart. Lover of all things digital. Papi is the founder of SA Vibe and has been sharing his love for gadgetry since 2010. Papi sees no need for wearable tech in his busy schedule and considers the Xbox One as non existant. He may come across as bias at times, and still holds a grudge at BlackBerry for creating the 8520.