Drones have become a constant feature of our lives, permeating various aspects of human activity.

They are fast being employed in many areas to bring about efficiencies, improve the speed of doing things while lowering costs, improving security, as well as enabling and guaranteeing food security.

Their entry into our daily lives is moving at a faster pace than we can imagine. The economic impact in direct sales alone is more than R3bn according to Dr Roelf Botha in his report to DroneCon in 2018. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV or drones) hold enormous potential beyond bringing fun to hobbyists and enthusiasts, but for economic growth as well.

Functions traditionally done by humans are being taken over by drones with more efficiency gains and predictability in terms of performance. Helicopters and other manned vehicles such as tractors are also being displaced by drones and in some instances, being complemented by drones.

Their use though, and realisation of their full economic potential, is subject to the creation of an enabling environment.

Operating UAVs in SA is a sticky matter. Legislation only came into effect in 2015.

While the regulations may be considered stringent in some quarters, the government is taking steps in the right direction. On July 15, the department of communications and digital technologies (DCDT) launched the Drone Council aimed at accelerating the country’s drone industry.

Nonetheless, to fly a drone for commercial gain in SA takes serious effort and investment in time and money. Without the required capital outlay and patience, you can abandon your dream of running a drone operation.

The expected levels of compliance are just too numerous for a small operator, even if all you want to do is take pictures or videos. The requirements for a small operator are similar to those who want to do the more complex tasks of surveying large tracts of land and flying over cities.

Drone operations in other countries on the continent with relaxed regulations have pointed to positive outcomes of drone usage. Medical supplies can easily be loaded and dispatched to remote areas with bad road infrastructure. The UK is also said to be using UAVs to ferry vital personal protective equipment (PPE) from the English mainland to National Health Services staff on the Isle of Wight.

To use drones for commercial gain in SA, one needs to have a remote pilot’s license (RPL). To obtain an RPL costs somewhere in the region of R30,000 which may be unaffordable for many owners of SMMEs thus creating another barrier to entry.

This leads to the proliferation of unlicensed operators whose skill and capacity hasn’t been tested. There is perhaps a need for intervention to support and enable SMMEs to access RPL through the relevant Setas under certain conditions.

The upfront capital costs to set up an operation may be too prohibitive for many and makes no distinction in terms of what the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) is for – from a small operator who just wants to take pictures and videos at weddings to someone who wants to run a swarm of drones and sophisticated management systems.

This also includes the costs of an RPL as indicated above. Add to that the price of a drone and the licensing and renewal of licensing including the radio license from Icasa it is quite exorbitant.

There is an urgent need to simplify the licensing processes. The process is convoluted; and includes the registration of the drone, with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), to getting a radio license from Icasa, then applying with the Air Service Licensing Council for a licence, and then the CAA for a Remote Operator Certificate (ROC).

At each stage there are costs involved and potential for delays and loss of documents. You can never predict the time it will take from applying for an ROC to finally receiving it. No service standards exist and no systems are in place for tracking applications.

Legislative processes and amendments will be critical in dealing with these challenges. Linked to this, the country must deal with the integration of RPAS with manned aviation. RPAS are a crucial part of aviation whose importance cannot be underestimated.

There is a case for increased economic growth supported by the UAVs in various markets. For this to be fully realised, there has to be a concerted effort to deal decisively with the barriers which exist while ensuring that safety isn’t compromised.

Jack Shilubana is the MD of Ntiyiso Aviation Services, a subsidiary of the Ntiyiso Consulting Group whose mission is to “empower institutions that enable Africa’s development”. Shilubana is also a founding member of the Drone Council of South Africa