Drone operations in South Africa: An overview of the legal landscape

In recent years, South Africa has embraced drone technology, with both hobbyists and commercial operators leveraging its potential. Drones, technically known as remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) or unmanned aircraft (UA), are transforming various industries, including mining, agriculture, construction, environmental monitoring, emergency response, real estate and infrastructure inspection. In light of this, it is necessary for both private and commercial operators to understand the laws governing drone usage in South Africa to ensure safe and legal operations. Below is a brief overview of the current legal landscape.

19 Jun 2024 4 min read Corporate & Commercial Law Alert Article

At a glance

  • In recent years, South Africa has embraced drone technology, with both hobbyists and commercial operators leveraging its potential.
  • First gazetted in May 2015, the regulations aim to balance innovation with safety and privacy concerns. Since then, the regulations have undergone various revisions, with the latest updates implemented in 2023. Some consider that further revisions to align with global practice may still be necessary.
  • In the meantime, private and commercial operators need to be aware of the laws governing drone usage in South Africa to ensure safe and legal operations.

The regulatory journey of drone regulations in South Africa

The South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) is mandated to regulate drones operating within the country. The first regulations were gazetted in May 2015 as the Eighth Amendment of the Civil Aviation Regulations, Part 101: Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems, under the Civil Aviation Act 13 of 2009 (Civil Aviation Regulations). These regulations aim to balance innovation with safety and privacy concerns. Since then, the regulations have undergone various revisions, with the latest updates implemented in 2023.

Private versus commercial use

The Civil Aviation Regulations distinguish between two primary categories of drone operations: private and commercial use.

Private drone operation refers to the personal, non-commercial use of drones for recreational flying or hobbyist activities. Private operators do not need to register their drones or obtain a Remote Pilot License. However, private operators must adhere to basic safety guidelines and regulations to ensure safe and responsible flying.

Commercial drone operation refers to the use of drones of varying specifications for economic gain, such as aerial photography, surveying, or providing inspection services in the industries mentioned above. Commercial operators are required to register their drones under Part 101 of the Civil Aviation Regulations and obtain a Remote Pilot License.

Guidelines for private use

The SACAA has established guidelines to ensure safe and responsible operation of drones for private use, including:

  • Maintain visual line of sight: Operators must keep their drone within visual line of sight at all times. The remote pilot must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with the drone to manage its flight and ensure separation and collision avoidance.
  • Altitude limit: Drones should not be flown higher than 120m (400 feet) above ground level.
  • Avoid obstacles: Operators must stay clear of obstacles such as buildings, trees and power lines.
  • Distance from people and property: Drones must be kept at least 50m (164 feet) away from people, vehicles, and animals.
  • Restricted areas: Drones should not be flown over populated areas, national parks or sensitive infrastructure.

Commercial licensing

Part 101.02.4(1) of the Civil Aviation Regulations specifies that no unmanned aircraft shall be operated in South Africa unless it has been issued with a certificate of registration by the Director of the SACAA.

In addition to registering the drone, the drone operator will need to hold the following certifications and licenses:

  • Air Service License
  • RPAS Operator Certificate
  • RPA Letter of Approval
  • Remote Pilot License

Each of these certificates and licenses has its own application process, supported by a range of supplementary documents and manuals that accompany the application process. The application requirements are detailed in the Civil Aviation Regulations.

Criticism of the licensing process, which closely aligns with manned aircraft licensing requirements, includes that it is overly restrictive and burdensome for many drone users. The Remote Pilot License requirements include obtaining a Class 3 or higher Aviation Medical Certificate, passing a theoretical exam as well as meeting stipulated practical training requirements, which can be cost-prohibitive and time-consuming for recreational or small commercial operators.


Drone operators who fail to adhere to Civil Aviation Regulations may face severe penalties, including a prison sentence of up to 10 years, a fine of R50,000, or both. Additionally, individuals found to be using drones irresponsibly may face legal liability for violating laws enforced by other government agencies.

Any drone flight or operation must obtain the necessary approvals beyond the SACAA framework requirements to the extent applicable. This includes:

  • Permission from individuals: Approval must be obtained from any people being flown over or near.
  • Landowner consent: Permission must be granted by the landowner where the flight will take place.
  • Neighbouring sites approval: Authorisation must be secured from neighbouring sites that may be affected by the drone operation.

A global view

When comparing drone regulations globally, South Africa’s approach shares similarities with many countries. Common themes include proximity to airports, weight limits and visual line of sight requirements. However, significant differences emerge in registration and licensing requirements, daylight flying rules and restrictions on flying over national parks.

In Africa, drone regulations vary widely. Countries like Morocco and Egypt have embraced drone technology with more relaxed regulations, while others have imposed strict bans or restrictive rules. South Africa’s regulations strike a balance between innovation and safety, incorporating privacy concerns into the legal framework.

Western nations such as the US, Canada, and those in the European Union have more developed drone regulations. These countries often permit more extensive commercial use of drones while recreational drone use tends to be more relaxed. These comprehensive regulatory frameworks enable broader integration of drone technology into various industries.

It is apparent from the global approach that transparency and stakeholder inclusion are essential when developing drone regulations. Countries with overly strict drone regulations are not finding success in enforcement. Compliance rates are low, as the burdensome requirements deter many operators. Effective regulation requires a balanced approach that ensures safety while accommodating the needs and interests of all stakeholders. Engaging stakeholders in the regulatory process and maintaining transparency can foster co-operation and compliance, leading to more effective and sustainable drone regulations.

Future of drones in South Africa

Understanding the legal landscape of drone operations in South Africa is essential for anyone looking to leverage this technology. With the SACAA continually adapting regulations to keep pace with technological advancements, we hope to see a robust regulatory environment that fosters compliance while allowing for flexibility and growth. The framework should encourage investment in South Africa and support the expansion of the drone industry, positioning the country as a leader in innovative drone usage across various sectors.

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