Commercial, Regulatory

Regulations Opening African Skies for Unmanned Aircraft, Connectivity, Tourism

By Denis Gathanju | October 25, 2018
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South Africa

South Africa. Photo courtesy of NJR ZA at wts wikivoyage

Unmanned aircraft have, over the past few years, taken the aviation world by storm. It has become apparent that without proper regulations, they could not only pose privacy issues, but also serious safety issues.

South Africa is one of the first countries in the world that has a proper regulatory system that addresses the operation of drones and licensing drone pilots. The drone regulations came into effect in 2015.

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Currently, there are no proper internationally agreed upon safety standards developed to help regulate the safe operation and/or regulation of drones. Normally the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) develops standards and makes recommendations on best practices while regulators from across the globe then convert the recommended standards and regulations into legally enforceable civil aviation regulations within their respective jurisdictions.

According to Poppy Khoza, director of the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), ICAO is in the process of developing global safety standards that relate to the operation and licensing of drones and pilots. These guidelines are expected to be ready in 2022. The SACAA is the government body mandated to regulate and enforce civil aviation safety and security within South African airspace.

In coming up with regulations to guide the operation of remotely piloted aircraft systems, South Africa has confirmed its strict commitment to air safety. Since the enactment and implementation of this law, other countries, mainly from the southern African region such as Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, have adopted similar measures to enhance air safety by regulating use of drones within their airspace.

Among the key requirements to operate a drone in South Africa, under the new laws, is the operator's need for a valid remote pilot’s license as well as a letter of approval issued by the SACAA to operate the drone. The letter of approval is valid for 12 months.

The drone to be flown also must be registered with the SACAA before operation. Other requirements include not operating drones within restricted air space and/or near or over designated security and state installations.

Additionally, and like manned aircraft, drone operators in South Africa should keep a logbook and are required to tune into the air traffic services when operating unmanned aircraft within controlled airspace such as near active airports and/or helipads. They are required to also report their coordinates to air traffic control and record all flight activities into the logbook.

Enforcement of Regulations

South Africa currently operates the safest airspace on the African continent. This is according to the latest aviation audit conducted by ICAO. This follows a series of audits that were meant to assess not only the regulation of the aviation industry in South Africa, but to also asses the country’s preparedness in addressing any aviation-related incident within its airspace. However, one area that was not included in the audit is the nation’s unmanned aircraft or drone regulations, even though they were operational at the time the audit was conducted.

While South Africa scores top position on the continent in terms of aviation safety and security, it ranked 33rd globally. This was because the SACAA seeks to enforce aviation safety and security regulations to the letter. This was witnessed earlier in the year when the SACAA suspended the air operator’s license of South African Express, a leading domestic and regional carrier and a wholly owned subsidiary of national carrier South African Airlines, which is also one of the largest airlines on the African continent.

Khoza said the suspension was inevitable because an audit of the airline uncovered severe deficiencies within the its maintenance systems that made the airline non-compliant with safety and security regulations. This also included the suspension of the airworthiness certificates of nine of the airline’s 21 aircraft.

Air Connectivity

Over the decades, Africa’s air safety record has been poorest in the world. However, recent developments on the continent have seen countries take action to ensure that safety and security regulations are not only implemented, but also enforced. Nonetheless, air travel in Africa still remains hugely underdeveloped.

Currently, the aviation industry in Africa supports more than 7 million jobs generating more than $80 billion. These numbers would significantly improve if certain inhibitors are removed or reduced. Some of these inhibitors include market access, investments, air connectivity and high costs of air travel within the continent. Air connectivity has been one of the highly debated inhibitors to trade, investments and tourism on the African continent. This consequently leads to high air fares.

To address one of these key inhibitors, the African Union, the apex political grouping on the African continent, has spearheaded the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) to deal with regulatory and implementation instruments that would make an open skies policy possible in Africa. This is in realization that Africa plays host to about 15 percent of the global population, but has only three percent of global aviation market share.

An open skies policy would without a doubt benefit the tourism industry in Africa. According to statistics from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the continent attracted more than 62 million visitors in 2017 and the figure is projected to increase by eight percent in 2018. Tourist arrivals are projected to grow significantly higher if air connectivity within the continent is enhanced.

Aside from being a catalyst to tourism, an open skies policy would increase trade and investment among African countries. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) indicates in a study that adopting an open skies policy would grow the gross domestic product of at least 12 leading African nations by up to $1.3 billion and attract an additional 4.9 million new tourists.

Protectionism is seen as one of the biggest obstacles to the achievement of an open skies policy on the continent. However, only a few African airlines are operational. Most of these are state-owned airlines. Only Kenya Airways, Kenya’s national carrier is fully privatized.

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