South African RPAS Regulations – One giant leap for (un)manned kind

February 13th, 2015, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT


This article provides an overview of the proposed remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) regulations which were published for public comment towards the end of 2014. The comments received by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) are currently being considered, and it is anticipated that the regulations will be promulgated towards the end of March 2015.

Sonet Kock

Sonet Kock

The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) has a mandate to regulate civil aviation activities in order to ensure acceptable levels of aviation safety and security within South Africa and amongst operators, this mandate includes the safety of persons and property on the ground. In the absence of promulgated legislation, are current RPAS operations legal?

There has been extended discussion with varied opinions around the legality of current RPAS operations. The following summary is the official position of the SACAA:

The outcomes of the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation (“the Chicago Convention”) were ratified by the Republic of South Africa and incorporated into the Civil Aviation Act, 2009 (Act No. 13 of 2009) (“the Act”). The Republic of South Africa as a member state and signatory to the convention is bound by the outcomes of the convention and related International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) prescripts (contracting state).

Article 8 of the aforesaid convention declares as follows:

“Pilotless Aircraft – no aircraft capable of being flown without a pilot shall be flown without a pilot over the territory of a Contracting State without special authorisation by that State and in accordance with the terms of such authorisation. Each Contracting State undertakes to ensure that the flight of such aircraft without a pilot in regions open to civil aircraft shall be controlled as to obviate danger to civil aircraft.”

In terms of section 72 of the Act, the SACAA is required, amongst others, to:

  • Control and regulate civil aviation safety and security.
  • Oversee the functioning and development of the civil aviation industry.
  • Develop any regulations that are required in terms of this Act.
  • Monitor and ensure compliance with this Act and the Chicago Convention.

In relation to RPAS operations in South Africa, it should be noted that the SACAA has not granted any approval to any entity or individual, due to the significant and real safety and security risks presented by this new sector of aviation. As such, whilst it is a fact that currently there are no specific regulations which govern RPAS authorisations; regulation 91.01.10 of the Civil Aviation Regulations, 2011, prohibits any person through an act or omission to endanger the safety of an aircraft, any person or property.

Draft regulations published for public comment

The SACAA in consultation with industry representatives from CUAASA (Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of South Africa), CAASA (Commercial Aircraft Association of South Africa), RAASA (Recreational Aircraft Association of South Africa), ATNS (Air Traffic Navigation Services), ACSA (Airports Company South Africa), CSIR and DENEL, to name but a few, worked together to draft the proposed regulations written with South Africa’s unique operating conditions and requirements in mind. The proposed draft regulations were published for public comment in the Government Gazette of 5 December 2014. The required period for public comment is 30 days and that period has since expired. The SACAA is currently assessing those comments that
were received.

Potential RPAS operators are expected to operate safely and responsibly and through their company-specific Operations Manual and related documents will need to convince the SACAA that they are able to do so. The RPA pilot as a new entrant to aviation will undergo thorough training to be familiarised with existing aviation rules and regulations in addition to RPAS specific theory and practical training.

Types of operations (Operations specifications or OpSpec)

Restricted visual line of sight (R-VLOS)means an operation within 500 m of the RPA pilot and below the height of the highest obstacle within 300 m of the RPA, in which the remote pilot maintains direct unaided visual contact with the remotely piloted aircraft to manage its flight and meet separation and collision avoidance responsibilities.

Visual line of sight (VLOS) means an operation below 400 ft (120 m) above ground level in which the remote pilot maintains direct and unaided visual contact with the remotely piloted aircraft at a distance not exceeding 500 m from the pilot.

Extended visual line of sight (E-VLOS) means an operation below 400 ft (120 m) above ground level in which an observer maintains direct and unaided visual contact with the remotely piloted aircraft at a distance not exceeding 1000 m from the pilot.

Beyond visual line of sight (B-VLOS) means an operation in which the remote pilot cannot maintain direct unaided visual contact with the remotely piloted aircraft to manage its flight and to meet separation and collision avoidance responsibilities visually.

Controlled airspace means airspace of defined dimensions within which an air traffic control service is provided to pilots (including RPA pilots) in accordance with the airspace classification as prescribed in the Civil Aviation Regulations.

Night operations means the period from 15 minutes after sunset to 15 minutes before sunrise, sunset and sunrise being as given in the publication “Times of Sunrise, Sunset and Local Apparent Noon of the South African Astronomical Observatory” or a similar publication issued by a recognised astronomical observatory.

Overview of RPAS regulations – selected sections from Part 101

General provisions

The draft regulations apply to commercial, corporate, non-profit and private operations.

The current draft applies to remotely piloted aircraft that weigh less than 20 kg (Phase 1).

The draft regulations impose a duty on the seller of an RPAS to notify the buyer, by way of written notification, of the requirements imposed by the SACAA as prescribed in the regulations.

Third Party Insurance – a ROC holder shall at all times be adequately insured for third party liability.

RPA approval and registration

Each RPA to be operated will require an RPA Letter of Approval as well as a Certificate of Registration issued by the Director of Civil Aviation.

Each RPA will be issued with a unique registration mark which shall be affixed to the particular RPA.

Personnel licensing

No person shall operate an RPA unless such person is in possession of a valid Remote Pilot Licence (RPL).

A Remote Pilot Licence may be issued for the following categories:

  • RPL (A): Aeroplane Remote Pilot Licence
  • RPL (H): Helicopter Remote Pilot Licence
  • RPL (MR): Multirotor Remote Pilot Licence

The following ratings may be endorsed on the licence:

  • VLOS: Visual line of sight operations.
  • E-VLOS: Extended visual line of sight operations.
  • B-VLOS: Beyond visual line of sight operations.

The candidate RPA pilot needs to meet the following requirements for the issue of an RPL:

  • Not be less than 18 years of age.
  • Submit a self-declared medical assessment report or

Class 4 medical certificate for B-VLOS operations.

  • Hold a restricted Certificate of Proficiency in Radiotelephony (Restricted radio licence).
  • Pass an English proficiency test (Level 4).
  • Have completed flight training.
  • Passed the theoretical knowledge examination.
  • Passed the skill test (practical flying test).

An RPL is valid to the last day of the 24th month from the date of issue thereafter a revalidation check will be required to renew the RPL.

RPAS Operator Certificate (ROC)

No person shall operate an RPAS unless such person is the holder of a valid ROC including the Operations Specifications attached thereto.

For commercial operations there is an additional requirement to hold an Air Services Licence issued in terms of the Air Services Licensing Act, 1990 (Act No. 115 of 1990).

Operations Manual – each ROC applicant shall develop for approval by the SACAA, an operations manual containing all information required to demonstrate how such operator will ensure compliance with the regulations and how safety standards will be applied and achieved during such operations.

Security – the ROC holder shall take specified security steps to safeguard the RPA from acts of unlawful interference and shall also conduct background checks on all personnel recruited for RPAS operations.

RPAS operations

Weather conditions – RPAS shall be operated in weather conditions that allow unobstructed visual contact to be maintained with the RPA by other airspace users and the operator unless in B-VLOS and Night operations specifically approved by the SACAA.

Landing on roads – a public road may not be used for landing or taking-off of an RPA except when involved in civil defence and law-enforcement operations and approved by the SACAA.

Controlled airspace – no operations in controlled airspace except as specifically approved by the SACAA subject to compliance with specified conditions:

  • VMC in an ATZ and CTR below 400 ft.
  • RPA fitted with a mode C or S transponder capable of displaying the unique squawk code issued unless otherwise exempted.
  • Be fitted with an altimeter capable of displaying to the operator on the Remote Pilot Station, the RPA’s altitude above mean sea level, corrected for ambient pressure.
  • Be fitted with a functioning strobe light and for a fixed-wing RPA, be fitted with navigation lights.
  • Operational requirements:
    – Notify the relevant Air Traffic Service Unit in advance of such operations outlining the intended type and scope of operations.
    – Receive confirmation from ATSU that such operations can be accommodated subject to limitations, requirements or considerations.
    – Communicate and accept instructions pertaining to all movements of such RPA from the ATSU via air-band communications.
    – Include a detailed response and reaction procedure in respect to the handling of any emergency i.e. loss of control which includes a technical failure of the RPA and a link failure between RPA and RPS or loss of communication between the ATSU and RPAS operator.

General restrictions

No person shall operate an RPA unless they have all of the following in their possession:

  • A valid RPA pilot licence.
  • Copy of the ROC and associated OpSpec.
  • Certificate of Registration for each RPA in operations.
  • Copy of the RPA Letter of Approval.
  • User manual for the RPA and remote pilot station.

In addition, no RPA shall:

  • Be flown in formation or swarm.
  • Be flown adjacent to or above a nuclear power plant, prison, police station, crime scene, court of law, national key point or strategic installation.

Unless specifically approved by the SACAA, no RPA shall be operated:

  • Above 400 ft above the surface.
  • Within a radius of 10 km from an aerodrome.
  • Within restricted or prohibited airspace.

Beyond visual line of sight – specific approval may be obtained from SACAA for B-VLOS operations but only in visual meteorological conditions and for operations below 400 ft above ground level unless otherwise approved.

Night operations – specific approval may be obtained from SACAA for night operations.

Operations in the vicinity of people – no RPAS operations directly overhead any person or group of people or within a lateral distance of 50 m from any person unless specifically approved by the SACAA or unless such person is under the direction of the RPAS operator or forms part of the operations of the RPA.

Operations in the vicinity of property, structures and buildings – no RPA shall be flown within a lateral distance of 50 m from any structure or building unless:

  • Specifically approved by the SACAA; or
  • Permission is obtained from the owner; and
  • The safety of all persons on the ground accessing such building or in the vicinity of such structure have been ensured.

Operations in the vicinity of public roads – no RPA may be operated over a public road, along the length of such road or at a distance of less than 50 m from a public road unless:

  • Specifically approved by the SACAA; or
  • For operations over a public road, such road has been closed for public use; and
  • Reasonable care has been taken to ensure the safety of road users and pedestrians in the event of loss of control of the RPA.

Radio communication procedures –no RPA shall be operated unless the RPA pilot has a functioning air-band radio in his possession, tuned to the frequency applicable to the air traffic unit controlling such area or airspace or to aircraft in such area or airspace.

  • The RPA pilot shall make the required radio calls indicating the altitude, location and intended operation of the RPA in that area and at such intervals as are required in order to ensure adequate separation from other aircraft is maintained.
  • For approved operations in controlled airspace, the RPA pilot shall maintain radio contact with the relevant air traffic unit and acknowledge and execute such instructions as the air traffic unit may give at any time during operation of the RPA.

Flight operations – the RPAS shall be operated in such a way that appropriate separation from other aircraft is maintained and that adequate obstacle clearance is ensured during all phases of flight. With regard to the type of operation, the size of the RPA, the RPA’s performance and external factors, the RPA pilot shall ensure that: the take-off and landing area is safe and
of the appropriate dimensions; free from obstacles; and has adequate surface conditions.

Right of way – an RPA shall give way to manned aircraft. The RPA shall avoid passing over, under or in front of manned aircraft, unless it passes well clear and takes into account the effect of aircraft wake turbulence.


Continued system maintenance – an RPAS shall be compliant with the manufacturer’s instructions for continued equipment maintenance through actions or inspections.

RPAS maintenance – maintenance on an RPA or any component thereof shall be carried out by the following persons:

  • RPA classified Class 2 or lower (RPA weighing less than 20 kg, operated below 400 ft) – maintenance performed by the ROC holder provided the holder can demonstrate its ability to perform the required maintenance;
  • RPA classified as Class 3 and higher (RPA weighing less than 150 kg, operated above 400 ft) – maintenance performed by the holder of a valid RPAS Maintenance Technician authorisation.

Practical implications

After the promulgation of the proposed regulations, any company or person interested in performing RPAS operations will need to inter alia:

  • Apply for an RPAS Operator Certificate (ROC) which includes the submission of an operator specific Operations Manual.
  • The ROC applicant will need to assess his operational requirements in terms of areas of operation/s and related airspace, required operational heights as well as distances away from, for example aerodromes, National Key Points etc. On the basis of this analysis, the ROC applicant will specifically apply for VLOS, E-VLOS, B-VLOS operations in controlled airspace and/or night operations. The approval operations will be specified on the OpSpec which is attached to the operator’s ROC.
  • Depending on the size of the operation and the intended type of operations, it would make sense for the ROC holder to create a “flight operations department” to manage operations, pilots, equipment and the documents and records specified in the proposed regulations (CAR 101.04.6) as the ROC is renewable annually upon passing an ROC revalidation audit performed by the SACAA.
  • For each RPA to be operated, the ROC applicant will apply for an RPA Letter of Approval as well as a Certificate of Registration; the RPAs listed during this phase of the application will be listed on the ROC once approved. Should the ROC holder add further RPAs later, these need to be approved by the SACAA and added to the ROC before the ROC holder may operate the newly acquired equipment.
  • Pilot training must be performed which entails the passing of a theoretical knowledge examination (theory) as well as a skill test (practical) in addition to a number of other qualification requirements (restricted radio licence, English proficiency check, medical assessment/Class 4 medical certificate).

Sample operations: Mine surveying

Aerial surveys for mines flown with RPAS prefer a higher altitude to increase the image footprint – any operations above 400 ft (120 m) require specific approval from the Director of Civil Aviation. Please be warned that flying higher than 400 ft directly increases the flight’s risk of mid-air collision with low flying aircraft in the area. For this reason specific approval is required from SACAA which will only be given if the operator can show by way of risk assessment/safety case that the specific flight can be performed safely and that collision avoidance measures have been implemented to the satisfaction of the SACAA.

Any operations more than 1000 m away from the remote pilot is considered a B-VLOS operation and requires specific approval from the Director of Civil Aviation – most mining operations will probably require B-VLOS operations due to the size and extent of the mining area to be flown. (VLOS operations = 500 m from remote pilot. E-VLOS operations = 1000 m from remote pilot with the assistance of an Observer.)

From the scenarios above it is clear that a prospective RPAS Operator will probably need to apply for specific approval to operate B-VLOS and above 400 ft, which approvals will be listed on that Operator’s OpSpec.

Going forward

The proposed regulations were published in the Government Gazette on 5 December 2014, and the period for public comment closed early in January 2015. The SACAA is currently assessing the comments received from the public and the important comments will be considered at Technical Work Group level where some of these comments might be incorporated into the proposed regulations. Once this process has been finalised, the proposed regulations will be tabled before Parliament. Persons who wish to stay up to date with the latest developments are urged to join the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association (CUAASA), please visit the website for more information:

Contact Sonet Kock, AviComply,

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