Almost 10% of drones in South Africa are destroyed on their first flight – and most crashes are due to simple pilot errors
- Around 10% of drones that take to the air in South Africa are destroyed on their first flight, judging by repair numbers.
- Many crashes are due to simple errors by pilots.
- More insurance companies will now cover drones, but it will cost you.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
About one in ten rookie drone pilots are destroying their craft on the very first flight, numbers from a repair specialist suggest – and many are doing so in stupid and preventable ways, while not being covered by insurance.
By current best estimates there are now between 40,000 and 50,000 drones in South Africa, as entry-level prices continue to drop. Almost all those drones are flown by amateurs; there are just 663 Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems in the country, according to the 2018 State of the Drone Report.
It’s not a legal requirement for hobby drone pilots to obtain licenses, but it can help to reduce the number of costly crashes. And as Business Insider South Africa discovered in 2018, many insurance companies are unwilling to cover these.
Unskilled part-time pilots, the high cost of repairs, the equipment’s relative fragility, the potential risk of injury and damage to property, and the complex legal framework surrounding the informal flying of drones, have lead many mainstream insurance companies to shut the door on policies - and the costs of repair, or liability, often rests solely with the hobby pilot.
1,200 drone accidents in 2019 – so far – at one repair shop.
According to Fixology, a drone repair company based in Cape Town, drones are falling out of the sky regularly.
In the first eight months of 2019, Fixology booked in around 1,200 damaged drones.
The company’s Nathan Appel says as many as 75% of the accidents they see are due to pilot error.
This includes owners testing out their drones indoors without a stable GPS signal, and not doing a proper preflight check before take off.
“It’s not uncommon for hobbyists to forget to ensure propellers and batteries are properly fitted before flying off,” says Appel.
Although most hobby drones now come equipped with technology to avoid the most basic of accidents, amateur pilots often inadvertently override these, or fail to activate them correctly.
One key feature built into most good quality consumer drones is a return to home functionality, that returns the device to its starting point in the event of low battery, loss of signal, or other difficulties.
But even this isn’t foolproof. Some drone pilots set the return GPS location to a moving object, such as a boat - which means that when the drone returns to home, the pilot has moved on.
“Many accidents happen because pilots don’t wait for a full satellite signal on the drone before takeoff, resulting in no return to home location being logged on the device,” says Appel.
And many rookie crashes are due to battery issues.
“Some also fly a drone out with the wind, without taking into account the return time, given the force of the wind holding it back on the return home,” says Appel. “And some pilots simply forget to check their battery levels.”
A high volume of cellphone network towers and satellite dishes will confuse their drones, which is another leading cause of accidents that Appel sees at Fixology. And some inadvertently deactivate object avoidance sensors by flying their drones in sport mode - causing them to crash unexpectedly into fixed objects.
And being in the Cape, Fixology repairs drones used for more than just photography. “In-experienced fishermen flying with bait droppers sometimes cause the line to be tangled in the propellers,” says Appel, “causing the drone to crash in the ocean.”
According to Fixology the number of accidents on the very first flight has dropped in recent years, thanks to the increase in accident avoidance technology. But even so, they estimate that as many as 10% of users crash their drones fresh out of the box.
Not all drone accidents are the fault of the pilot, though.
“Manufacturing faults, electronic parts malfunctioning, and faulty batteries can cause the props to stop in mid-air,” says Appel. “And using a non-recommended smart device to fly the drone, and getting a bad feed, can also result in blank screens and crashing”.
When drones do fall out of the sky, repairs aren’t cheap.
The parts that Fixology repairs the most - things like gimbals, sensors, propellers, legs and arms - can cost thousands to fix or replace. And if the crash is directly into the ocean or a body of water, you can write the drone off altogether.
Basic repairs to gimbal ribbons, landing gear, and remotes on entry level drones like the DJI Mavic start at R1,500, says Appel. But if you manage to destroy the gimbal on your DJI Phantom - one of the most popular drones in South Africa - you’ll be at least R14,500 out of pocket.
More insurers now cover drones – but it doesn’t come cheap.
Insuring drones in South Africa is difficult, in part because of the high rate of accidents, cost of repairs, and potential liability to third parties.
But according to Drone Covered’s Ryno Du Toit, the uptake for insurance from hobby pilots has also been slow. Drone Covered is one of the few companies in South Africa to insure non-commercial pilots and hobbyists, both on the ground and inflight.
Given the expensive repairs, and potential liability, Du Toit is unsure why more drone hobbyists aren’t taking up insurance, but he suspects because many fly so occasionally, and just for fun, they’re willing to take the risk of not insuring.
Drone Covered, like most insurers, are also particularly strict about claims - any breach of Civil Aviation Authority rules will lead to the claim being repudiated. And before any claim is processed, they will check the flight logs. Still, Du Toit says that about 10% of their current client base has logged claims, and of those, roughly 75% were successful.
Some larger insurance companies are also starting to insure non-commercial drones, though somewhat reluctantly. Hollard and Santam Aviation now offer full and comprehensive cover for private and commercial operators. And AlexanderForbes has a similar policy - they’ll cover the drone for loss and damage, though premiums go up significantly if this occurs while the drone is in use.
Most larger insurance companies require that pilots first attain official licenses to fly, though. This process, which runs through the Civil Aviation Authority, is arduous - particularly for the occasional weekend warrior.
As a compromise, Drone Covered offers incentives to those hobby pilots who undergo private proficiency training - both online and in-person. They will halve excess, from 20% to 10%, and increase liability cover, from R500,000 to R2.5 million.
But drone insurance isn’t cheap - it will likely cost around 12% of the retail cost of the drone.
Insurance requirement or not, most experts recommend that users do some proficiency course, and are well versed in CAA laws. Flying a drone in South Africa is governed by several laws, and it’s a hobby that can have severe legal consequences, including fines and possible jail time for those who break them.
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