How to fly a drone 100 m from an international airport runway

No Drone Zones Gauteng

Do not try this at home!

A potential client strolled passed our Securex exhibition stand, and engaged us about a drone project. Their site is situated right next to OR Tambo, and our interest was piqued. Apparently, other drone operators had rejected the request previously. As a result, the company had given up on the idea. “Can YOU fly a drone right next to the airport? 100 m from a runway in fact.”, he asked.  

You see, unless authorised by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA), one cannot operate a remotely piloted aircraft:

  • Within 10 km to an aerodrome (airport, helipad, airfield)
  • 50 meters or closer from people or roads
  • On any property without permission from the property owner
  • Note: This site is in controlled airspace AND in a no-fly zone – most commercially-bought drones would not even start in that zone

Regulations make this difficult

Surprisingly, South Africa is one of the few countries in the world which regulates the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle industry in the same way it regulates commercial aviation. As a result, this poses a significant challenge for any drone operator to fly a drone in controlled airspace. However, navigating these regulations and permissions is possible, with the right certifications, knowledge and experience.

Enter UAV Aerial Works…

UAV Aerial Works is a licensed operator and has been authorised to operate over people, property and public roads and in controlled airspace. But, there are still strict procedures to follow, and our operations team set out to gather all relevant permissions.  After obtaining written landowner permission, we assessed the site. Risk assessments are a regulatory requirement but also significant in delivery of safe drone flights. Any hazards and risks are mitigated appropriately. Always Safety First!

Now for the tricky parts

First, the team submitted the ‘Flexible Use of Airspace’ (FUA) application containing flight operation details. This included intended procedures, emergency protocols, operator credentials, drone specifications etc. The Central Airspace Management Unit (CAMU) and SACAA approved the request on merit. Notably, the fitted transponder most likely made this approval easier. That is to say that OR Tambo ATC would see our drone on their radar.

Secondly, with the CAMU reference in hand, the next step was to get unlock codes. This comes directly from the drone manufacturer in China. They have a reputation to uphold and unlocking a drone to fly in a red zone is a big deal. Again, all credentials and documentation were required.

Lastly, the flight plan was filed with OR Tambo ATC. After several on-the-day risk mitigation actions, the Pilot in Command activated the flight plan and called the operation in to OR Tambo ATC. The operation began as planned. As luck would have it though, the weather conditions worsened to above the allowed parameters. The team had to cease operations for the day.

The drone project was successfully completed on day two, after a repeat flight plan filing, flight plan activation and communication with OR Tambo.

Drone Project next to OR Tambo Airport

How did we get this right ?

Most importantly, our very experienced Flight Operations team and Chief Pilot had previously met with OR Tambo Air Traffic Control. Between them, our senior management team has almost 6,000 manned aircraft flying hours. They kind of know what they are doing. Their credentials were noted at the time. Knowing how to navigate procedures and having the confidence to deliver a drone project under these strict conditions, is a skill.

In addition, speaking on the radio with OR Tambo ATC, whilst they were controlling ‘heavies’ could have been daunting. Of course our Chief Pilot aced this based on his experience. There was also a lot of waiting for ATC operators to clear commercial traffic before giving us the go. Now we know where drones stand in the pecking order of air traffic.

So, there is a team near you which can safely and professionally deliver your next drone project. If you are in controlled airspace, near an airport, and in a no-fly zone, Contact us at UAV Aerial Works or one of our subsidiary brands Drone Guards or Media Star to chat.

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