Drones fly into legal loophole

If you’re expecting a drone in your Christmas stocking this year, be careful before taking it out for a spin – your new toy could see you flying foul of the law.

Although drones have been around since before the 21st century, their growing versatility and affordability have seen them surge in popularity in recent years.

They are now used increasingly by news organisations, the film industry and the military, not to mention the general public for whom they have become the ultimate toy.

However, as the popularity of drones has increased, so too have complaints about them getting too close for comfort.

A few weeks ago, a Table View woman complained about a drone snooping on her while hovering close to her apartment window.

The woman, who lives on one of the top floors, posted on Facebook that while she was in her bedroom, a drone had a “good look” into her lounge and bedroom before doing the same to the apartment below before flying away.

“Just want to know what the legal thing is about these drones,” she asked.

Kabelo Ledwaba from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) said they realised the low cost and easy availability of drones meant there was always the chance some would use them illegally.

The authority, he warned, would not hesitate prosecuting those who did, and he appealed to the public to report lawbreakers to the SACAA or the police.

“Failure to adhere to civil aviation regulations could result in a 10-year prison sentence or a fine of R50 000, or both,” said Mr Ledwaba.

In July last year the association introduced regulations for drones or as they are known in more formal jargon, “remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS)”.

Mr Ledwaba said South Africa was one of the first “and still few” countries with comprehensive drone law, which prohibits drone owners from flying their aircraft unless they have registered them with the SACAA and been issued with a letter of approval and a valid remote pilot licence.

Retailers may also not sell a drone unless they have notified the buyer of the SACAA’s requirements.

It is illegal to fly a drone: directly overhead any person; within a lateral distance of 50m of any person, structure or building; or into any property without the property owner’s permission.

Drone pilots also have to “observe all statutory requirements relating to liability, privacy and any other laws enforceable by any other state entities,” said Mr Ledwaba.

Basically, that means it’s the drone pilot’s responsibility to operate their aircraft safely and not threaten the safety of another aircraft, person or property or invade someone’s privacy.

But there’s a loophole. Corporate lawyers Michalsons, notes that the distinction between a “toy”, such as a radio-controlled plane, and a drone has not been defined by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

The firm’s website says the SACAA has suggested that aircraft used solely for recreation or sport, would likely be considered toys, while those used commercially were more likely to be classified as drones. But the rapid pace of drone technology, says the firm, is making it hard for legislation to keep up, and it advises the public to read drone regulations to see if or how the law applies to them.