As the use of commercial drones gains momentum in Africa with aid agencies and agricultural institutions fast taking up the technology to streamline their work, the lack of regulations as well as security and safety remain key concerns.
From the delivery of emergency medical supplies and blood samples in Rwanda and Malawi to gas exploration in Tanzania and Mozambique, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are proving extremely useful.
However, only South Africa and Rwanda have proper laws on the use of commercial drones within their airspace.
Civil aviation authorities are struggling to keep the unmanned aerial vehicles out of the way of aircraft and incorporate them within their air navigation and surveillance systems.
“African operators are trying to address current concerns. Countries should also insist on drone pilot training as part of regulations,” said Celine Hourcade, the head of cargo transportation at the Interna-tional Air Transport Association.
Ms Hourcade added that the association is working with the International Civil Aviation Organisation, air navigation agencies and governments in formulating a regulatory framework.
In February this year, Rwanda opened its skies to commercial drones, barely two years after South Africa approved its own drone regulations.
Rwanda’s revised regulations, are the first in the region, were approved in January. They outline the use of UAVs in complex commercial operations.
“The laws allow drones to fly above the visual line of sight and permit the use of highly automated drones,” said the Minister of State in charge of Transport in the Ministry of Infrastructure Jean de Dieu Uwihanganye.
Kenya and Tanzania are still struggling to put the necessary laws in place.
Two months ago, Kenya’s parliament refused to endorse the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Regulations 2017 over safety and privacy concerns.
“Drones are now operating illegally in Kenya. The tragedy is that we can’t do much about it because we don’t have any laws to enforce. My primary concern is safety, particularly around airports,” said Kenya Civil Aviation Authority director-general Gilbert Kibe.
Nairobi now hopes the regulations will be in place by the end of the year after addressing concerns raised by Members of Parliament.
In March, KCAA issued a gazette notice on drone regulations that seeks to among other things, establish a registry to control the ownership and use of the unmanned vehicles.
“All drone operators will have to register with us and obtain a permit to fly. We will need to know how many drones are in the country, what purpose they are for and who their operators’ sake,” said Mr Kibe.
The gazetted regulations, if endorsed by parliament, will allow Kenyans to acquire drones for sports, private activities and commercial purposes.
Those who wish to import, own or operate drones will also be expected to apply to KCAA and pay a fee. The drone pilots, who must have a liability insurance, will also be limited to 400 feet above ground level.
The proposed regulations also ban flying drones over or around strategic installations and radar sites unless one has a permit from KCAA.
The agency had also proposed a ban on importation of military-grade drones by civilians, while those wishing to bring in commercial drones would have to notify the aviation agency in writing and obtain a registration certificate.
In Tanzania, even though the importation of drones is allowed, one must get express authority from the Tanzania Civil Aviation Authority (TCAA) to bring them in, including a user-pilot certification from either of the seven accredited institutions.
“We are engaging stakeholders on the use of drones in our airspace. We believe that they are important for our economic development. The regulations we are proposing will include detection and interception mechanisms,” TCAA director general Hamza Johari said.
Mr Johari said that the surveillance and detection mechanism will ensure safety of other airspace users, and also allow authorities to intercept UAVs that go against the regulations.
Currently, Dar es Salaam and Kigali only allow daytime operation of drones. Drone operators in Tanzania must also insure the aircraft.
TCAA has also classified the remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) into three: Light (under seven kg); medium (between seven and 150 kg) and large (over 150kg). However, for the medium and large RPAS, one must get a special permit from the Ministry of Defence.
To boost safety, drones are not allowed within a five-kilometre radius of Tanzania’s international airports in Dar es Salaam and Kilimanjaro, and within a three kilometre radius of domestic airports.
Drones are also banned in national parks. Drone pilots must also have a special permit from the civilian aviation authority to fly over populated areas and crowds.
In Rwanda, operators are required to pay for the drones’ insurance and hold a valid remote operator’s certificate issued by the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority.
Operators must also hold a pilot’s licence and a medical certificate. The licence, like Tanzania, must have been received from a drone training institution from Europe, South Africa or the US.
Kigali too, does not allow the use of drones around strategic installations including airports, military bases and radar sites. There are also plans to incorporate drones within the country’s traffic management system later this year.
“We are planning capacity building, drone pilot training and certification of regional drone operators in Rwanda,” said Mr Uwihanganye.
Through its aviation authority, Kigali allows a maximum altitude of 328 feet for flying drones, with a maximum take-off weight of 25 kilogrammes.
To protect its traditional aviation players, the drones cannot be operated within a six-kilometre radius of its airports without clearance from the country’s aviation agency, and must have a special aviation number displayed as assigned by RCAA.
Rwanda has also set speed limits for the drones at not more than 87 knots (100 kph).
Uganda on the other hand remains one of the region’s most restrictive countries for drone operations, with its civil aviation laws demanding a 90-day notice of intent to import into its territory.
It also empowers its Department of Defence to have some clearance duties in certain drone operations as it seeks to ramp up its safety laws.
Like the rest of its neighbours, its amended civil aviation regulations also demands a pilot training certification and bans UAV’s over crowds and cities.
South Africa, which is now being used as a benchmark for successful infusion of drones into its airspace and navigation management system, has managed to address some of the concerns African governments have been having in trying to regulate this new aviation platform.
Recently, during the Africa Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO) conference in Mombasa, aviation players raised national security, privacy, accidents, ownership and training as some of the concerns that have held back African governments in regulating the use of drones within their airspaces.
Another challenge is the integration of remotely piloted aircraft systems into current and evolving air traffic management systems, while ensuring the safety and efficiency of aviation operations.
“It is indeed time that we started holding discussions on drones as part of the air traffic management; this will address the safety and national security concerns that several governments and stakeholders have had, which has slowed down regulations in this new sector,” said CANSO deputy director general, Simon Hocquard.