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DRONES’ drone gagged?

Do you think the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) move is prudent keeping the safety of civilian aircraft in mind? It has already started a viral debate among RC airplane and multirotor flying enthusiasts. The very definition of what's to be classified a 'drone' and the legal ramifications of such are being discussed. The fact that the USA's FAA is yet to come out with definitive policy on use of UAVs for surveying — UK has directives that only permit flight below 400ft from the surface and that the UAV should weigh less than 20kg, Australia has directives that permits UAV flight above 400 feet from the ground surface, and that most other nations are yet to even think about this issue — is serious cause for concern.

As we deal with all things geospatial, the focus shifts to the likes of the X100 from Trimble, SIRIUS PRO from Topcon, the Q-Pod from QuesrUAV, etc. They cost way more than the RC hobby airplane and quadcopters and deliver photogrammetric quality data. They also have flight times much more than the 15 -20 minutes that the RC hobby aircraft are capable of. Any UAV or drone used for mapping or surveying will, by virtue of the task at hand, necessarily have to fly on a pre-planned path; not so with the RC hobby toys. The accidents and close misses reported due to UAVs (in peace time and civilian spaces) are almost all from the unregulated RC hobbyists. There is now an urgent need for formal and strict definitions to distinguish between a flying toy and a 'UAV on a civilian mapping mission'. Else, a feasible, viable and technologically advanced form of geospatial data gathering may fall on the horns of procrastination and face a premature death. The real problem would be to detect the flying toys before they cause serious damage, and nab the owner. As of now, these toys are just too small to be detected on civilian radars, unless the 'DIYDrones' community succeeds in using passive radar technology and regulates itself.

Published as editorial in Geospatial World Weekly 9 June, 2014