Drone light show has commercial operators seeing Absa red

July 30th, 2018, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT, Featured: PositionIT

Commercial drone operators cry foul as drone light show sidesteps Part 101 commercial drone regulation.

As part of its rebranding exercise, Absa partnered with Intel’s Drone Team for a drone light show above the Johannesburg CBD to display the bank’s new logo. The orchestrated 300-drone performance in July left the audience in awe, but drew criticism from local commercial drone operators for not following the Part 101 drone regulations to which they are held.

Fig. 1: The Absa drone light show in Johannesburg’s CBD.

Fig. 1: The Absa drone light show in Johannesburg’s CBD.

These regulations, which came into effect in July 2015, regulate South African commercial and corporate drone operations. Under Part 101 regulations, commercial operations, as the Absa drone light show would typically be classified, come with several prerequisites that require the drone company (operator) to hold an air service licence (ASL), RPAS operators certificate (ROC), RPAS letter of approval (RLA), remote pilot licence (RPL) and certificate of registration (CofR).

The drone industry maintains that as this was clearly a commercial operation, it should be placed under Part 101 regulations. An Absa spokesperson confirmed that Absa was the client, but declined to provide further details, saying the bank does not disclose any details regarding its vendors or payments made to them. Asked about the commercial nature of the operation, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) said the authorisation was for a show, and that the SACAA “was not aware of any commercial operation.”

The Part 101 approval process is notoriously cumbersome – in the last three years the SACAA has certified only 27 commercial operators. According to the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of Southern Africa (CUAASA), a professional body representing commercial drone operators, the registration process usually takes between 18 and 24 months. There are currently 436 operators awaiting Part 101 approval.

Many commercial drone operators were therefore infuriated to learn that the light show was approved by the SACAA within a month, according to the dates appearing on the letter of approval. Registered operators say they were approached by Intel to help conduct the drone light show, but turned the opportunity down citing delays in the RPAS Part 101 approval process.

Fig. 2: The chairman of the Air Services Licensing Council’s tweet.

Fig. 2: The chairman of the Air Services Licensing Council’s tweet.

Even the chairman of the Air Services Licensing Council, Michael Mabasa, seemed confounded that no air service license (ASL) was issued for the event, tweeting to Absa two days prior to the event, during a rehearsal: “I don’t remember seeing your application nor a recommendation from the SACAA at the Air Services Licensing Council (ASLC) authorizing this event.” The Department of Transport, within which the council is situated, later confirmed that no ASL was issued for the Absa/Intel drone light show. The ASL is attributed as one of the main delays in Part 101 registration process.

Commercial drone operators further said that the drone light show violated several drone regulations, including flying at night, flying a drone above people or within 50 m of a building, and flying drones in a swarm, most likely employing autonomous flight, which is also prohibited under Part 101 regulations.

Fig. 3: A summary of drone operations prohibited by Part 101 regulations.

Fig. 3: A summary of drone operations prohibited by Part 101 regulations.

The SACAA approved the drone light show in a letter addressed to the NTSU Aviation Solutions, dated 5 July 2018. (NTSU said their application was made earlier, during May 2018.) While Part 101 regulations make provision for exemptions (referred to as Part 11 exemptions and made available publicly), this was not such an exemption. The SACAA said the application did not require an exemption as there is a proviso in the law to process the application, in this case, as a Special Air Event.

NTSU, an aviation consultancy founded by two ex-SACAA officers in November 2017, said it had applied on behalf of its client(s) for special authorisation from the SACAA director (Poppy Khoza) in an alternative process that is altogether different to the Part 101 process, and hence gained approval seemingly faster than the usual Part 101 process. They added that their own clients who are applying for the Part 101 approval are stuck in the same line as other applicants. NTSU referred questions about the official name of such application to the SACAA.

The SACAA did not provide the official name of the application process followed, but said “the application was for conducting a once-off light show that was categorised as a Special Air Event. Any organisation/applicant can apply to conduct a special air event, e.g. an air show, and approval will be granted provided the applicant complies with all applicable regulatory requirements.”

According to NTSU directors Dale McErlean and Sam Twala, their in-depth knowledge of the available approval options led them to apply for the special authorisation. They said that the process, to their knowledge, is available to any other applicants – and that it was not a special favour by previous colleagues. They believe their application was approved based on the thoroughness of their application, which they also attributed to their experience of working in the industry.

The authorisation, signed by the SACAA’s Aviation Safety Operations executive Simon Segwabe and bearing the director’s stamp, states that the drone light show is being treated as a “once-off special event which is in line with all other special events/air shows that are regularly organized in South Africa by other bodies”.

The drone industry also took issue with the fact that the letter was address to NTSU (which is not a registered drone operator), as opposed to being addressed to Intel, the company that operated the drones. The SACAA in turn said that NTSU was not the applicant, but the representative of the applicant. NTSU would not elaborate on the companies involved in the application process, citing non-disclosure agreements as the reason.

To explain why the operator, in this case Intel’s Drone Team, did not have to undergo the same Part 101 process as local operators, NTSU said it suspects that it was because Intel is an international operator that is registered in an ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) member state that is recognised by South Africa. They likened it to an international commercial airline carrier landing in South Africa even though it is not registered with the SACAA.

The SACAA confirmed this, saying “the applicant for the drone light show happened to be a non-South African operator. Therefore, the provisions of Part 101 were not applicable in this regard. Notwithstanding, foreign operator provisions became the applicable laws. These provisos are covered under Article 33 of the Chicago Convention. The Convention referred to as Schedule 3 Convention on International Civil Aviation (articles 1 to 96) is covered under the Civil Aviation Act. Based on this, the applicant needed to have approval issued by the State of Registry, in this instance the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States.” The SACAA went onto say that “the applicant was in possession of the required approvals.”

However, aviation experts told EE Publishers that such operators still require a foreign operator permit, and further pointed out that ICAO has not yet standardised drone operations between its member states. This is because the process to obtain a drone license and the legal frameworks for registration differ vastly between countries. Intel’s Drone Team did not respond to questions as to whether it possesses a foreign operator permit.

One aviation expert also pointed out Section 2 of the Part 101 regulations which stipulate that no RPAS shall perform aerial or aerobatic displays or be flown in formation or swarm, adding that South Africa’s State Security Agency was adamant about the latter at the time the regulations were formulated, due to the security risks this would pose.

In a letter that CUAASA sent to the SACAA requesting further information about the procedure followed in the Absa/Intel drone light show, CUAASA claims that several applications have previously been made for foreign drone operators to fly in South Africa, all of which have been denied, including applications for exemptions.

As for the autonomy of the drones in the light show, NTSU said the drones were not flying autonomously by the strict aviation definition as in “beyond the pilot’s control or intervention,” but were instead flying in an automated pattern no different to the that of survey drones flying determined flight paths. Intel has also not responded to questions about the autonomy of its drones.

That the approval was issued for a once-off air show should also not have made a difference to the procedures followed, as the SACAA has an agreement with Air Shows South Africa (ASSA) for collaboration to put on air shows. The ASSA chairman, Rikus Erasmus, confirmed that ASSA was not involved in the Absa/Intel drone light show, adding that safety protocol would require drone pilots in an air show to hold a ROC.

Asked whether any other drone shows have been held under the same authorisation, the SACAA said that this was the first event that it was involved in.

For observers, what the drone light show has called into question is the enforceability and even practicality of the regulations for an already widely popular technology. NTSU however urged people to see the drone show as a positive action by the authority and a step in the right direction towards the development and innovation of the drone industry.

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