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Africa Drone Pioneers Chase Rules of the Sky


Miriam McNabb is editor-in-chief of DroneLife.

Drone regulations around the world are still in the development stages, and Africa is no different. Despite many ground-breaking applications, formalized regulations that will encourage industry growth remain in process.

At the African Drone Forum held in Kigali, Rwanda, in February, a group of regulators from all over the globe and representatives from international agencies including the World Economic Forum, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems (JARUS), a body of international aviation experts, came together to discuss approaches to drone regulation.

“You can figure out what Rwanda needs to put Zipline in action,” said Stephen Creamer, director of ICAO’s Air Navigation Bureau, “but take it next door, (and) without harmonization, you will have to figure out the issues all over again.”

California-based Zipline uses drones to deliver blood supplies across Rwanda and is expanding into other countries with its mission of providing “instant access” to vital medical supplies.

“Why limit ourselves to just using drones?” Rwandan President Paul Kagame told the Kigali forum. “We can also design and manufacture drones in Africa, as demonstrated by examples at this forum. This allows the technology to be tailored to our specific needs, and to help create new industries that generate employment and prosperity.”

A regulatory environment is critical for implementation, Creamer says. “We have the opportunity to innovate and iterate… We need to put that together with 100 years of aviation safety experience. ”

While committed partners with the ICAO, African states including Uganda and Rwanda are not waiting for international standards to be finalized before moving forward on drone regulations.  “We need to maximize the potential of the drone industry,” says Emile Nguza Arao, executive director of Uganda’s CASSOA.  The commitment to drone regulations – and the speed with which the countries are attacking the problem – is impressive.  “We’re there not to stifle development, but to support it in any way that we can,” Arao says.

That’s a sentiment that Andrew Mutabaruka, the head of Quality and State Safety Programs at the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority, echoes.  Rwanda has developed the Part 27 drone rule, a performance-based regulation. While committed to ensuring that risk is minimized, “We want to make sure that innovation is encouraged,” Mutabaruka says. The CAA has involved industry and stakeholders by developing steering committees to ensure “cooperative rule making” and public acceptance.

Most critically, Rwanda is investing in pilot programs.  “It’s not possible to sit here and imagine the problems without actually having operations take place,” Mutabaruka says.

(The African Drone Forum included a competition among drone teams to safely deliver at least two, 500-milliliter saline bags about 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, to an island in Lake Kivu.)

Birds over water

Uganda’s CASSAO is investing in drone expertise, and working with partners including Rwanda to develop a drone training syllabus, practice test, a digital data bank of frequently asked questions for drone operators, and a regional center of excellence for drone pilot training.  The goal is to establish a universal training system, which will allow a drone license obtained in one member state to be valid in all member states and boost commercial drone operations across country boundaries.

As part of the effort to break down operational borders between member states, drone flight beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) – and at higher altitudes – is key.  “At CASSOA, we believe in BVLOS, but our real objective is to have cross-border operations,” Arao says.

Heavy-lift cargo drones, some of which have a maximum altitude of 24,000 feet, have enormous potential to develop economies in Africa by allowing cheaper and easier transport of goods.  With the need for both BVLOS safety regulations designed for heavy aircraft and regulations that address flight at higher altitudes, however, cargo drones offer distinct challenges.  “We are working to ascertain the best implementation plan,” Arao says.

Human resources with deep drone expertise is a global challenge in developing drone regulations for a rapidly expanding industry.

“If these were similar technologies, the inspectors in Rwanda could handle both manned and unmanned vehicles,” says Mutabaruka. “But we need more resources to oversee UAS” or unmanned aerial systems.

The lack of an existing globally harmonized regulatory framework and standards make the task more difficult, as African nations are in the same situation as other countries in trying to develop reasonable regulations that will cross borders and meet stakeholder needs.  Those standards require information from existing operations.  “We need more data,” Mutabaruka says.


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