OPINION: Should hobby and toy drones flying above you, be a concern?

JOHANNESBURG –  With South Africa being the first country that has had regulations for drones, or otherwise known as remote piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), has caused a large difference in opinion.

These regulations have been implemented mainly for commercial flying of these aircraft, where certain safety factors have had to be taken into account. 

Initially, the flying of these drones, whether commercially or for hobby purposes, were not allowed within a 10 km distance from any airfield or airport. 

These regulations have created the problem that no flying can occur in an area of 314 square kilometres.

That will mean that the flying of these drones cannot happen for the inspection of building even 5km away. This in turn creates the issue that people lose income. Fortunately, licensed pilots have recently had the opportunity to communicate with air traffic controllers to get permission to fly in controlled airspace, is prior arrangements have been made.

A licensed drone pilot have many advantages for the flying of drones, yet there is still red tape that prevents a pilot from obtaining remuneration for flying their drone once they have obtained their license. 

These licensed pilots have all the understanding and training for safe flying, yet what happens if you are wanting to fly your drone for recreational or hobby purposes? When referring to a drone, I am referring to a multi-rotor copter (not a plane), which can take off vertically and hover in a single spot.

Parents are purchasing these drones for their children, which can range from a few hundred rand to about R30 000, depending on the features it has onboard. There are more advanced drones as well, which could have features that might be compared to military specs.

For hobby purposes, the South African Association of Model Aircraft (Saama) have got fields across the country where aircraft can be flown, but for hobby purposes, people (whether children or adults), want to fly the drones when they have a free moment, or experience the opportunity to take some aerial photos in their surrounding areas. With this in mind, you will generally find that these drones will be flown in people’s yards, or in parks.

The public have become almost paranoid about drones. Whether it is the annoying buzzing sound that is preventing an old couple to get their afternoon nap, or whether it is a privacy related issue, the reason the public complain about the drones flying is quite vast. 

Yet, is it really a concern, and are we as the public reacting a bit too quickly? Ten years ago, if the public saw a drone flying, people would have watched it eagerly, being amazed at how technology has developed and discussing the future of drones, yet now, it is almost the opposite.

Safety is the largest concern in my opinion when it comes to the flying of drone. Some sensibility is required before taking off with a drone and going for a “spin”. The first safety aspect that must be taken into account is the danger the drone might have for other aircraft. 

While flying a manned aircraft, it is not possible to see drones that are flying in the distance in front of you, especially if the drone is the small scale of the toys available in the shops. A manned aircraft hitting a drone, will cause huge amounts of damage. For this reason, the flying of drones must happen below 120 ft or 30 meters above ground, as per regulation. Do not fly your drone to a point where you cannot see it. 

The other safety aspect that people do not take into account when a drone is flown, is the people below the drone.  Every pilot hopes their aircraft will not fail, but this is a possibility that must be taken into account. Due to this reason, pilots of manned aircraft have regulations to follow in terms of being above a certain height when flying over crowded areas and similar consideration must be taken into account with drone

Privacy: This is possibly the reason for most of the complaints that people have.  For example, a person was under the impression that photos were being taken of their private residents , which would be used against them in a blackmail scenario. In another example, a  gentleman was concerned that his wife and daughters were being checked by a perverted person flying the drone.

The following regulations are in place for the flying of drones, whether they are registered for commercial purpose or not:
Any RPAS, registered or not, must not be flown in such a way that it poses a risk of causing injury to people, damage to property, the possibility of collision with other aircraft (manned or unmanned) or the infringement of by-laws regarding privacy.

The RPAS must not be flown closer than 50 meters to any person or group of people, registered RPAS, public roads or onto, over or from any private property without the permission of the owner.

Flight Safety and situational awareness is advised to be considered at all times.
Do not fly over public roads.
Do not take off or land on a road.

Where do you draw the line of privacy if Google Earth have high definition cameras obtaining images of your property that are of a better quality compared to what the drone is able to observe? 

Yes, if a drone pilot is not flying with safe practices, infringing privacy and not complying with requests of neighbours, then a case can be opened with the South African Police Service (SAPS). A drone pilot that flied recklessly, could be liable with a fine of R50 000 and / or 10 years imprisonment.

The problem I see in today’s society is that with technology and other distractions, we tend to not communicate with each other, and get angry about things that could have been resolved in a simple discussion. 

If you find that you are concerned or worried about the intention of flying in an area, then go speak to the pilot first, and see what they are doing.  Approaching it in this way, will probably result in the pilot being more than happy to show you the footage they have, and what their intentions are.  Discuss with them if it is the noise factor that might not be convenient, and they will possibly be willing to fly in more appropriate times.

If it is a security factor you are concerned about, and to make sure that the drone is flown by a neighbour that you can trust, maybe ask them to send you a WhatsApp message a few minutes before the time, to put your mind at ease that your family is safe. 

You could ask the pilot to fly at least a certain height, so that your mind is at ease that they will not be viewing through your house windows. If you see that the drone was maybe going over a property line or it is flown in an unsafe manner, unknowingly to the pilot, discuss it with them and help them to find a way to improve on the problem.

If after warnings the problem is not resolved, or if you try to discuss the situation in a humane manner but the pilot is not willing to discuss this with you in person, then by all means consider the suggested steps to take things further. Yet, communication is the most important factor to take into account. It is not worth the increased blood pressure, anger, dispute between neighbours, and the large legal costs to pursue a grudge, when a calm discussion could rectify the problems.

Professor Riaan Stopforth is the head of the Stopforth Mechatronics, Robotics and Research Lab, which is currently based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is also Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering at UKZN. He is a licensed pilot, RPAS pilot wand with an instructor rating. He has been the research chair for Drone Research in South Africa as part of the Robotics Strategy of South Africa (ROSSA) programme for the Department of Science and Technology.

RiaanStopforth - OPINION: Should hobby and toy drones flying above you, be a concern?

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