SA Flyer & FlightCom Editor Guy Leitch is forced to confront the CAA’s many shortcomings.
How the CAA is Creating Illegal Drone Operators
In response to the first article in this ‘CAA Dossier’ published in the February issue, we have received many more stories about how the regulator’s obdurate bureaucracy is stifling aviation.
This month’s Dossier is particularly worrying, as the CAA’s lack of capacity is stifling the most dynamic and fastest-growing part of aviation – drones or, to use their official ICAO name, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). It confirms what many have suspected – that the frustrating and lengthy processes adopted by the CAA are contributing to otherwise law-abiding operators and pilots just giving up on the legal process and both flying and operating, illegally.
DRONE OPERATOR LICENCES
The key issue is drone operator licensing – more accurately, the requirement to have an accredited Remote Operator's Certificate (ROC) for your drone operation. Two or three years ago, the CAA was lauded as having some of the best drone regulations in the world. But now the drone community is pulling its hair out over the almost complete inability of the CAA to implement the required processes, in particular, the poor implementation of the Part 101 drone regulations for operator accreditation.
In 2016, the CAA issued just 16 Remote Operating Certificates (ROCs). Last year this was down to just four, and there is a backlog of over 340 applications. Some applicants have been trying to get their ROC for 24 months to date – and are still waiting.
In contrast to the sorry state of affairs in South Africa, Australia has 1,274 UAS Operator Certificate Holders – the equivalent of South Africa’s ROCs. The loss to the South African economy is huge. Economist Dr Roelof Botha has calculated that more than 30,000 jobs would be supported by a vibrant drone industry. Yet the industry remains a tiny fraction of that.
Part 101 drone regulations require drone operators to follow pretty much the same structures as big planes: Pilots have to have licences, drones must be registered, and the operators must have an ROC. Also, to train the vast numbers of pilots applying for licences, there need to be approved RPAS Training Organisations (RTOs).
The drone industry’s Joint Authority on Rule making (JARU) and the Commercial Aviation Association’s (CAASA) affiliate body, the Commercial Unmanned Aircraft Association of South Africa (CUAASA) agrees with, and in fact promotes, the need to have properly accredited, safe and compliant operators. This requires approved procedures and operating manuals, the necessary accreditation and documentation, and the regulations to ensure our skies are as safe as possible. Yet this strongly growing industry is being stifled, once again, but particularly severely this time, by the inefficient, time consuming, and costly processes that it is being subjected to by the CAA.
The facts are appalling: just to get an off-the-shelf drone registered may take six months. Even worse, it is taking more than two years for a Remote Operator's Certificate to be issued. So, if you buy a drone and want to fly it legally in an operational or commercial environment, you will just have to hang it in the roof of your garage for the months or years it takes the CAA just to register it and get your ROC approved. An industry spokesman told me that their operating costs for the two years they waited for an ROC were more than R1 million in wasted overheads. No wonder people are just giving up and flying them illegally – and yet hopefully still below the radar and away from big plane flightpaths. Furthermore, it creates problems not just with breaking CAA regulations, but with insurance and public liability, as you can’t get the necessary third party and public liability insurance without an ROC.
The CAA argues that the reason it is taking around two years to approve ROC applications is that paperwork is not being properly submitted. This is probable given the newness of the industry and the application process. But in response to the CAA’s claim that the paperwork is often submitted incorrectly, an exasperated applicant for a drone ROC said, “If the documentation is incorrect, then fine, throw it back at us for correction, but within an acceptable time frame please! Other excuses like internal re-structuring, or staff shortages, are simply not acceptable when you are playing with people’s livelihoods!”
DRONE OPERATORS PREVENTED FROM EARNING A LIVING
There is a unique aspect to the problem of regulating drone operators in that, prior to the regulations coming out, many of these drone operators were already earning a living using drones, but they are now grounded until they get an ROC. They maintain that, despite being prevented from earning a living from their existing businesses, no-one at the CAA can give even an approximate time for the process to be completed. So, these legacy operators are simply prevented from continuing with their work of earning an honest living by the CAA’s indefensibly slow turnaround times.
The drone operator applicants ask that, if it is going to take two years or more to get an ROC approved, some sort of interim provision must be made so that if you are in the process of applying for an ROC, a temporary certificate or approval be granted, like a temporary driver’s licence or passport. Instead, the CAA is heavy-handedly enforcing a ‘no fly, no income’ dispensation and forcing existing drone operators out of business.
In addition, these existing drone operators have Drone Pilot Licences and Air Service Licences which require continual renewal with all the associated fees, and yet they are not allowed to earn an income to pay the fees. The law-abiding operators are having to carry all the costs associated of maintaining their licences, while losing out on revenue to un-licensed drone pilots. This is counter-productive and unfair to those who abide by the law and make all necessary efforts to be compliant.
A hobbyist, or unlicensed drone pilot can fly a drone if it’s below the highest obstacle within 300 m and in line of sight. So can a licensed pilot. But a licensed pilot can’t fly any higher or further, even though he has a licence, unless he is flying under an ROC. Basically, a hobbyist is like a PPL pilot with no ratings. The PPL pilot can fly around provided it’s not for commercial work/income. And having an RPL (drone licence) is like having a CPL. You can’t do any commercial work with a CPL, unless you are flying for a company with an AOC. A hobbyist and RPL pilot not flying under an ROC are both flying just as illegally if they are doing commercial work.
Drone operators insist that they have no problem with registering their drones, getting pilots licensed and appointing qualified people into the various responsible positions within their organisations. They point out that they are even happy that operators must also bear the costs of training people in safety systems, quality assurance, aviation security, and pay the insurance premiums on equipment and third party insurance (which all still have to be paid), even if the operator cannot fly while the ROC is in the process of being approved. All the operators want is that the CAA process ROC applications within a reasonable time, publish this time frame and stick to it. With the reported cost of waiting being over R1 million, many of the operators who grounded their operations while they waited for their ROCs to be approved have given up waiting.
IS THE CAA UNDERSTAFFED?
It appears that the CAA has, despite its large increase in staff and associated salary bill, not employed the necessary staff to manage the RPAS requirement. A review of their website shows that the CAA currently has approximately 100 inspectors, managers and administration staff to handle all Flight Operations. This staff supports both flight and maintenance issues for approximately:
234 ATO flight schools
34 ATC schools
More than 100 large aircraft operators
200 charter operators
More than 100 helicopter operations (The CAA does not list the approved AOCs on its website so it is difficult to get an exact number)
The 22 published existing holders of ROCs
Of these more than 100 inspectors, managers and support staff, only about seven are allocated to RPAS operations, and this is over and above their other specified roles within the CAA. At the end of January, one of the most experienced drone licensing officials is reported to have left the CAA. It is therefore not surprising that the backlog has grown out of control: As noted, at the beginning of 2017, there were more than 340 pending ROC applications in various stages of approval sitting in CAA inboxes. In effect, this means that the CAA has a handful of people, working part time as they have other duties, to service the 340 RPAS operations who have already applied to become accredited. And not all of those people have anything to do with the approval of an ROC. So the question must be addressed: If you submit your correct documents today, how long will it take to become approved?
LOW-RISK DRONE OPERATORS
The CAA has announced that they will be changing the way ROCs are evaluated and applied. The idea is to focus on the type of operation the operator intends flying, and the risk that is involved. Low risk operators, flying over open land with small drones, would have little oversight and less onerous regulation, whereas operators who fly heavy aircraft, beyond visual line of sight, that could cause damage while flying over built-up areas, would have far more stringent regulations.
The trouble is that currently all operators have to go through a process similar to that which the high-risk drone operator will have to endure if or when the regulations change. The CAA’s thinking for the proposed change to regulations is sound, but yet again, the slow progress to implementation is a problem. In September 2017, the CAA said the industry could expect the new regulations in 12 months. And that was already 12 months since it was first brought to the table.
The bottom line is that drone operators are concerned that this situation is an accident waiting to happen. They point out that an accident with an unlicensed, and thus uninsured, drone operator would be avoided if the industry was served by a competent and pro-active aviation authority. At the first RPAS conference in Midrand two years ago, the CAA speaker said, “The CAA is here to assist the industry.” Yet again, this just isn’t the case.
Editor’s Note: The SACAA was given a timeous opportunity to use a right of reply to this WUCAA article, but has been unable to do so before going to print. They have however undertaken to respond for the May issue.