Drone operators wait years for licences in SA. So how did Absa putting 300 in the skies over Joburg
Absa put on Africa's first "drone firework" show in partnership with technology giant Intel above Johannesburg on Wednesday night, but it is not clear how it got permission to do so.
Questions have been raised about the event because neither Absa nor Intel seems to have a licence to operate drones, nor do they seem to have registered the 300-odd drones that will be involved.
South Africa has strict licensing requirements for drones, in part to protect those beneath them.
Current rules require companies to have an air-service licence issued by the Air Service License Council (which resides at the Department of Transport) as well as a remote operator’s certificate (ROC) from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), responsible for regulating the civil aviation industry.
Drone operators must also have a Remote Pilot License (RPL), as they would be using the drones for commercial purposes, says technology lawyer at Michalsons, Lisa Emma-Iwuoha. Strictly speaking, each of the 300 Absa drones should be individually licensed before they can take off, she says. Such licensing is a tedious process that has taken local companies years to organise, according to Jono O’Connell, owner of Timeslice, a licensed drone company in the film industry in Cape Town.
“Many of us were contacted only a month ago to quote on this project and we all said it could not happen in such a short space in time,” O’Connell tells Business Insider South Africa.
“I have waited nearly two years for one [letter of approval] and at best around eight months. I said organising a job like this within the time frame would be impossible.”
In response to the allegations that they could be flying drones illegally over Johannesburg, Absa told Business Insider it had received the correct permission to use the airspace above two sites, Nasrec and the Johannesburg CBD, from the CAA in June.
But a CAA letter seen by Business Insider shows approval was granted on 5 July for safety and security procedures for a "once-off special event". The letter also mentions a company called NTSU Aviation Solutions, which Absa says was contracted to acquire permissions for the use of the airspace only.
To obtain such permission, a company must either have an Air Service License (ASL) or an operating certificate, according to aviation lawyer, Chris Christodoulou of Christodoulou & Mavrikis Inc.
One of NTSU’s co-founders, Sam Twala confirmed to Business Insider that the company is not a drone operator, as it doesn’t have a certificate for operating drones. Twala said he couldn’t comment on whether the company has an Air Service License, and referred us to the company website – which does not contain that information. NTSU is not listed on the CAA’s organisations that currently hold ROC licenses.
Drone license holders in South Africa
Anglo Operations (Pty) Ltd – CORPORATE operations only
BAC Helicopters CC
Compact Aerial Services (Pty) Ltd
Darkwing Aerials (Pty) Ltd
DC Geomatics (Pty) Ltd
Drones Ops (Pty) Ltd
FC Hamman Films CC
Flightpoint (Pty) Ltd
Fortune Air (Pty) Ltd
LS Multi Copter Projects and Services (Pty) Ltd
Premier Aviation CC
Public Display Technologies (Pty) Ltd
Rocketmine (Pty) Ltd
Scarab Industries CC
Skyhook (Pty) Ltd
Terra Survey (Pty) Ltd
UAV & Drone Solutions (Pty) Ltd
UAV Industries (Pty) Ltd
UAV Technologies (Pty) Ltd
Visual Air Productions (Pty) Ltd
VPM SURVEYS CC
Further investigation shows that the founders of NTSU are former employees at the regulatory body.
Twala worked in the remotely-piloted aircraft division at CAA while his co-founder, Dale McErlean, is a former flight inspector responsible for new drone company applications.
Drone company owners verified their former positions.
But Absa says all is above board and Intel was given “special permission” by the CAA.
“I really want to promote drones and what Absa is doing is fantastic. How can it be fair to fast-track one operation while dozens of others get left lying in limbo? The way this was done goes against the regulations we are strictly held to,” says O’Connell. “We’re all happy to play by the rules. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Unfortunately what seems in this case is that is not what’s transpired,” says O’Connell.
Even the chairman of the council responsible for granting licences to fly drones in SA, Michael Mabasa was perplexed at the operation that’s already been kickstarted.
Watch Absa's rehearsal for the drone event:
"I don't remember seeing your application nor a recommendation from the SACAA at the Air Services Licensing Council [ASLC] authorizing this event," Mabasa replied to the bank's announcement of the drone show.
In response to questions the CAA said that “the drones and the pilot are registered and licensed in the State of Registry in this instance United States of America.”
That astonished O’Connell. “It seems the regulator can break the rules whenever they feel the need,” he said.
Intel and the CAA requested more time to respond to Business Insider SA's questions on whether Intel applied for and/or obtained licenses for the drones in South Africa. This post will be updated with those responses as they arrive.
* On Thursday morning, following the drone show, Absa's head of communications Songezo Zibi provided this additional response to questions from Business Insider:
"As the client, Absa needed written confirmation from the relevant authorities that the Absa Intel Drone Show could proceed. Such confirmation was obtained. Any questions relating to the due diligence process that the authorities applied or the quality thereof can best be answered by them. Absa has no influence over this process and never sought to have any. Had the authorities, after considering all the facts before them, decided to refuse the application we would simply have exercised another option for the launch of our new Brand and abandoned the idea of flying drones. During the course of preparing for the Absa brand launch we have sought permissions from various authorities for different events. Some of these have either had to be modified or abandoned on the basis of permissions obtained or refused. This was no different. We also cannot comment on possible reasons why the authorities grant or refuse applications, alternatively, fail to complete various individual applications on time as alleged. These are questions for the authorities to answer."