People have been complaining for a while now that the FAA got caught flat-footed by the rise of UAS technology and has been playing catch-up ever since. Whether or not that criticism is entirely fair, the FAA is not the only aviation regulatory body that has been struggling with these issues.
The legal status of UASs in South Africa and the actions taken by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) have eerie parallels with developments in the US. As in the United States, the commercial operation of any UAS in South Africa is banned pending the adoption of comprehensive UAS rules. The SACAA has announced that they will shortly be setting up a system to give interim approvals for certain types of low-risk commercial UAS operations that no doubt will be similar to the FAA’s Section 333 approval process. South African law also recognizes an exception for UAVs that are flown purely for hobby or recreational purposes, and places altitude and airspace restrictions on hobbyists that are similar to the Special Rule for Model Aircraft. The SACAA has announced that they will be cracking down on unauthorized UAS operators, and anyone caught can be fined up to 50,000 Rand (about $4,500) and face up to 10 years in prison.
The SACAA is also facing the same type of push back from the public that the FAA has faced. Similar to the arguments made against the FAA in Huerta v. Pirker, there is a contingent of South African UAS hobbyists who have taken the position (http://www.defenceweb.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=36186:caa-on-track-to-introduce-uav-regulations-by-march-2015&catid=114:civil-aviation&Itemid=247) that because the UAS rulemaking is not complete and there are no final rules in place, the SACAA has no authority to punish UAS operators. The SACAA has countered with the same argument made by the FAA, it is in charge of aviation safety, UAVs are aircraft, and they have the authority under Part 91.01.10 of the Civil Aviation Regulations (http://www.caa.co.za/New%20Notices/CIVIL_AVIATION_REGULATIONS-2011.pdf) to prohibit any aircraft operation that endangers public safety.
While the US has been ahead of South Africa in creating a system of interim approvals for commercial operators, it appears the South Africans are in the lead in the overall rulemaking. The FAA will announce its notice of Proposed Rulemaking sometime this fall, with, depending on who you believe, final adoption of the rules sometime in 2016. The South Africans have announced they are on track to have their rule in place by March 2015. Of course, at the end of the day, the real test of these regulatory efforts is how effective they are at safely permitting the maximum use of the airspace. That comparison will have to wait for another day.
(Originally posted September 10, 2014)