A security perspective

Drones, UAVs, UAS, RPAS – whatever terminology that you may use – unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming more and more popular, not just for use by hobbyists who like to fly them on weekends, but for commercial purposes.


The commercial use of drones ranges from aerial photography and filming, to being used in anti-poaching operations, aerial surveys, crop spraying, wildlife and other forms of monitoring, parcel delivery, delivering of medical supplies to remote areas, evaluation of fire scenes and incidents and surveillance.

Major retailers such as Amazon, are experimenting with drone technology for the fulfilment of orders in their larger warehouses, as well as looking at the viability of utilising drones to do deliveries. Large industrial plants are investigating the use of drones for spare parts logistics. Drones have been used to deliver blood and other essential medical supplies in hard-to-reach rural areas in countries like Rwanda.

Delivery options such as these, if they become a viable option for urban areas, can increase the speed of deliveries, as well as saving resources and streamlining processes.

There are infinite applications, which are limited only by the technology that is currently available.

Drone technology has many benefits when used in a positive manner. But like most technologies, there is a dark side to it as well. The most common “negative” use of drone technology that is prevalent is the use of weaponised drones in warfare, as well as drones that have been used for espionage.

Criminals are also embracing drone technology. There have been reports of drones being used to smuggle items into prisons for the prisoners. In the UK, criminals have attached thermal imaging cameras onto drones to pick up the heat signatures of their rival’s marijuana farms, so that they can steal from them. There is also what is known as “narcotics drones”. These are drones that are used by drug dealers to smuggle drugs over the US/Mexican borders.

Closer to home criminals can use drones to identify potential targets for robberies, of both commercial and private properties.

The word “drone” has a negative connotation because weaponised drones have been used in warfare by various countries, so the preferred name is Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). This definition encompasses the wide range of RPA systems that are available, from miniature units that can fit into the palm of your hand to larger fixed-wing units with wingspans of more than 1 m.

Risks involving RPAS

But with every technology, there is some element of risk. The military potential for destruction and the criminal element have already been highlighted, but the risks involving RPAS for the civilian user are just as high.

Injury to the public

RPAs can be very dangerous if not operated safely. Multi-rotor RPAS units have very sharp carbon fibre blades that can cause injury if they come into contact with a person. There was a case in England where a toddler lost an eye due to being injured by the blade of a RPA, that was being flown in the backyard of the house.

Most RPAs are powered by a rechargeable lithium polymer battery. As the recent Samsung Galaxy Note 7 incidents have illustrated, lithium batteries can be very dangerous, if they are not manufactured or handled correctly. The lithium polymer batteries that are generally used in RPAs are large and very powerful. If these batteries are not managed properly, they can be damaged and the damage to the battery can cause it to explode or ignite.

Besides the safety issues surrounding the RPA itself, other risks from the negligent operation of an RPA are the following:

Collision with other aircraft, with possible fatal resultsThere are frequent reports from around the world of pilots reporting RPAs flying near their aircraft when coming into land. Besides the blatant disregard of the laws stating that RPA units should not fly within 10 km of an aerodrome, this is very dangerous. If the RPA had to strike the aircraft at a critical point while landing, and get caught up in an engine or wing flap, there could be disastrous consequences for the aircraft.

Other risks include damaging people’s property and legal liability for breaking laws, such as privacy by-laws and laws enforceable by other authorities.
Minimising the riskSo, how can this be prevented? Firstly, by implementing specific legislation with regard to RPAS, and secondly by educating the public about the risks and rules regarding the use of RPAS.

South Africa is one of the first countries in the world to introduce legislation with regard to the operation of RPAS. With the rapid growth in the RPAS industry and the increased use of RPAS for commercial applications, legislation is necessary to ensure the safety and security of everyone who shares civil aviation airspace.


The regulations that govern the operation of RPAS in South Africa became applicable in July 2015. These regulations cover the use of RPAS for commercial operations, corporate operations, non-profit operations and private operations.

Private operations

With regard to operating RPAS in South Africa, if a person operates a RPAS unit for their own use, it may only be used for an individual’s personal and private purposes where there is no commercial outcome, interest or gain. The pilot must observe all statutory requirements relating to liability, privacy and any other laws enforceable by any other authorities. It is also a requirement that those that sell RPAS display notices and inform buyers of the basic regulations as it applies to private and other uses of the systems that they sell.

Commercial operations, corporate operations or non-profit operations

If an entity or a person is operating a RPAS for commercial operations, corporate operations or non-profit operations, the RPA must be registered and may only be operated in terms of Part 101 of the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) regulations.

The reason that individuals make mistakes or inadvertently break the rules is that they are not aware of what the risks are, or the potential threats. Therefore, one of the mandatory requirements is that all personnel employed in the deployment, handling, and storage of RPAS need to undergo aviation security awareness training, as detailed in Part 109.

Professional Aviation Services has been involved in the aviation industry, in one form or another, for the last 35 years. They specialise in offering risk services in terms of compliance, aviation security consulting, training and aircraft sales.

They are passionate about educating and equipping people, and they are an approved aviation security training organisation. They offer the only SACAA approved aviation security awareness training course designed specifically for RPAS operations.

In terms of mitigating risk and increasing security, education is key. The correct application of the regulations, the ongoing education of the public and the safe operation of RPAS, will go a long way in keeping the skies and people safe. This will create an environment where the use of RPAS technology, to solve problems, can become a reality.

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