The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is working on regulations for integrating unmanned aircraft into mainstream aviation.

Unmanned aircraft have long been used by the military, but various industries are beginning to see the economic benefits of using them for research, transport of medical samples, game counting and firefighting.

A committee of specialists from Denel, the South African Air Force, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the CAA, and Air Traffic and Navigational Services has been appointed to draw up regulations. Two unmanned aircraft have been used for years in trials run by the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) in rural KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape to courier medical samples carrying DNA from rural clinics to central laboratories for testing.

The use of these aircraft enables the NHLS to return laboratory results to even the most remote rural clinics within six hours, and this has proved to be of great benefit in the fight against AIDS, tuberculosis and cancer of the cervix.

The CAA committee expects the regulations to be in place by 2015, but the NHLS hopes that, pending discussions with the CAA, it will go live with the flights soon, rolling out the programme to other rural communities.

Prof Barry Mendelow, head of molecular medicine at the NHLS, said several safety issues had still to be resolved.

“We are happy with the technical aspects of using the aircraft and are close to resolving the biological hazard of transporting molecular samples,” said Mendelow.

The NHLS is experimenting with two aircraft.

One, called eJuba (electronic pigeon in Zulu), was developed with Denel Dynamics and weighs a mere 3,5kg.

The other aircraft was developed by BFA Systems, a small company based in Somerset West. It weighs 800g, and has a wingspan of 800mm, a cruising speed of 50km/h and a range of 40km.

The CAA is one of the first in the world to begin regulation of unmanned flight.

Colin Jordaan, CEO of the CAA, said: “SA is proud to be part of an international study group established by the International Civil Aviation Organisation to look at all aspects of unmanned aircraft systems operations, including their safety. The introduction of these aircraft into our airspace will definitely come with some economic benefits.”