The State of Drone Regulations in Africa: a Call for Harmonization

Drone regulations around the world are still in the development stages, and Africa is no different.  Despite many ground-breaking application, formalized regulations that will encourage industry growth remain in process.  At the African Drone Forum in Rwanda, 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 JARUS came together to discuss approaches to drone regulation.

“You can figure out what Rwanda needs to put Zipline in action,” said Steven Creamer, Director of ICAO’s Air Navigation Bureau.  “but take it next door. …Without harmonization, you will have to figure out the issues all over again.”

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

African Partner States Moving Ahead to Enable Cross-Border Operations

While committed partners with ICAO, African partner 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,” said Emile Nguza Arao, Executive Director of Uganda’s CASSOA.  The commitment to drone regulations – and the speed with which they are attacking the problem – is impressive.  “We’re there not to stifle development, but to support it in any way that we can,” says Arao.

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,” says Mutabaruka. 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,” says Mutabaruka.

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.

“We believe in breaking borders,” says Arao.

Next Frontier: BVLOS and Heavy Lift Cargo Drones

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 CASSOIA, we believe in BVLOS, but our real objective is to have cross-border operations,” says Arao.  Heavy lift cargo drones, some of which have a max 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,” says Arao.

Challenges

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.”  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 comments.