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Be careful of things that buzz

Could drone technology be the silver bullet to revolutionise agriculture and help bring about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, while solving many of the current global challenges we face along the way?

If you believe the buzz, then yes!

It certainly has a lot of potential. In the forestry sector alone, it could dramatically reduce labour costs, especially when it comes to preparing tracer lines in steep inaccessible areas, for example. It has the potential to reduce many of the risks to the environment and human health associated with pesticide use, especially to applicators coming into contact with toxic active ingredients. Drones could be used for mapping plantations and identifying alien invasive species, for the control of many pests, weeds, fungal species and even wildlings (commercial species that have spread into non-planted natural areas).

In short, there appears to be 101 great uses for drone technology in commercial plantations.

Venturing into the unknown

The problem with any new technology is how best to implement it to ensure that the correct safety standards and operating requirements are met.

‘We have now had several very interesting but not overly successful meetings with various drone operators and operating companies,’ explains Roger Poole, TIPWG chairperson, ‘and the challenge seems to be the legal requirements that govern the commercial use of drone technology.’

South Africa was one of the first countries to approve drone or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) regulations. However, according to many of the drone operators Roger has spoken to, ‘the requirements are quite cumbersome and costly, while the lag time between documents being submitted and drone operators receiving their licences is drawn out.’

Both CropLife SA’s interpretation of the acts and regulations governing the use of drones, in particular concerning the aerial application of pesticides, and TIPWG’s investigations have shown that the requirements for the use of drones for the aerial application of pesticides are no different from those applicable to commercial pilots operating fixed-winged aircraft or helicopters for the aerial application of pesticides.

Under Act No. 36 of 1947 and Act No. 13 of 2009, drone operators are required to be:

  • Registered as a pest control operator for aerial applications under Act No. 36 of 1947. This registration can only be applied for if the person complies with all the requirements of Act No. 13 of 2009.

  • Licensed to operate a drone (remotely controlled aircraft) under Act No. 13 of 2009.

  • Registered under Act No. 13 of 2009.

  • In possession of a remotely piloted aircraft operator’s certificate issued under Act No. 13 of 2009.

  • In possession of a certificate of competency to operate a radio communications system.

  • In possession of a system for radio communication.

For a more detailed explanation of the governing regulations, please refer to the CropLife SA position statement: Regulatory requirements for the use of drones in aerial application of agricultural remedies Version 1, 7 March 2019.

However, there are small distinctions between what is required for drones and for other aircraft. For example, current regulations state that every single drone will need an airworthiness inspection, whereas for helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft only the model needs to be passed. This makes the process more cumbersome for drone operators.

In trying to complete TIPWG’s due diligence to put together a standard operating procedure for drone technology, we have come across several sticking points where further clarity is still required. These include the requirements needed for an OpSpec (operational specification) and whether this needs approval from the director of the Civil Aviation Authority.

Need for safety checks before lift-off

Before jumping on board and succumbing to the buzz, we must do our due diligence.

Poor decisions regarding the use of drone technology, including their illegal use by the sector, could have huge ramifications for their future use and for the reputation of our industry. It is therefore important that we move ahead with a degree of caution.

The first Remote Operator’s Certificate (ROC) was issued in early 2019 by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and was confirmed by CropLife SA. TIPWG supports CropLife SA’s stance, which urges any drone operator who wishes to offer services as an aerial applicator to undergo the necessary training, certification and licensing in terms of both acts before commencing aerial applications of agricultural remedies.

At TIPWG we intend to continue with our due diligence and have scheduled meetings with more role players to try and clarify the exact requirements for drone operators to apply pesticides on our landholdings.

The future is going to be airborne

We do believe that drone technology will become a useful part of the forestry toolkit, but this will be dependent on drones and their pilots meeting all the requirements currently set in South African legislation.

We also welcome the launch of the Drone Council South Africa on 15 July 2020 by the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT). As a platform of affiliation for both established drone companies and new entrants to the drone industry, the aim is to facilitate the growth of the South African drone economy – which includes pilot training. We can only hope that the Drone Council South Africa will be able to provide the clarity that sectors wishing to utilise drone technology needs, especially with regard to the regulatory requirements, so that the potential of this technology can be truly realised.

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