Laws for the commercial use of drones: a recap

Drones have had an extremely positive impact on commercial operations across a range of industries, including mining, engineering and construction – not only have they lowered and streamlined project costs, but they’ve also made working conditions safer for staff and improved the accuracy of surveys, inspections and assessments. Naturally, though, as UAVs have been put to work in more and more fields, so the laws governing their use have tightened, motivated mainly by concerns around safety and privacy.

Today, to legally operate a drone for commercial purposes, a pilot has to abide by a lengthy list of rules, and failure to do so could result in imprisonment and/or the issuance of hefty fines. Here, we recap some of the most important regulations for your benefit.

drone surveying

Need help with a commercial project? Learn more about our drone services.



Before anyone can fly a drone for business reasons, they must:

Apply for a Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) letter of approval from the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) and officially register every UAV being used for commercial gain.

Make sure their drones are fitted with an altimeter that displays the altitude and height of the UAV above ground level.

Complete the tests and training necessary to obtain a valid Remote Pilot Licence (RPL) in the relevant category. 

Apply for and acquire a valid RPAS Operator Certificate (ROC) and an Air Services Licence issued in terms of the Air Services Licensing Act.

Take out valid third-party liability insurance for drone operations.


Record-keeping is central to the legal use of drones for commercial purposes. All holders of an ROC and RPL must:

Keep a pilot logbook where all flight time, instrument time and instruction time is recorded.

Develop an operations manual that states the type and scope of drone operations to be conducted and outlines, among other things, the processes that will be followed to identify risks and hazards and maintain an acceptable level of safety.


Drone operators are required by law to maintain and regularly inspect their equipment as per manufacturer’s instructions. A maintenance programme must be developed and a logbook must be kept with a record of all the work carried out on a UAV and its components.


Unless special approval is obtained, a drone operator is not allowed to:

Fly a drone in weather conditions that might prevent him or her from maintaining visual contact with the UAV.

Release, drop, dispense or deliver an object or substance using a drone.

Operate a drone in controlled or restricted airspace, within 10km of an aerodrome, adjacent to or above a nuclear power plant, prison, crime scene, police station or SANParks reserve.

Fly a UAV within a lateral distance of 50m from any person, structure, building or public road.

Operate a drone that doesn’t have enough fuel or electrical charge to complete a flight, plus a reserve of at least 10%.

Fly a drone unless a first aid kit and hand-held fire extinguisher are available at the remote pilot station and within 300m of the take-off and landing points.

Needless to say, getting all your ducks in a row so you can legally fly a drone is a complex, time-consuming and costly process. Generally, it makes more sense to join a managed ROC or hire a reputable company that’s already licensed and approved by SACAA. On the hunt for one? Talk to us at DC Geomatics. We offer customised drone solutions and services to a range of industries and are fully compliant with all the rules and regulations governing the commercial use of UAVs.