Tough laws shoot down efforts to grow drone technology

From left: Nominated Senator Tabitha Mutinda Munene, Konza Technopolis Chief Executive John Paul Okwiri and Addy Kimani, sales and marketing lead, Fahari Aviation, during the recent Elevate Africa Summit 2024 in Nairobi. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Tight regulations by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) are hindering the growth of the nascent drone technology sector in the country.

This emerged last week during a two-day Elevate Africa Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Summit in Nairobi, where players in the sector voiced these concerns.

Drones are classified under UAS because they do not have a person to man them while in the air like aeroplanes but are controlled from the ground.

Among issues that need to be relooked at, they said, is Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS), a term used to describe flights where the drone is operated beyond the direct line of sight of the pilot, approval for licences and the cost of operating a drone.

BVLOS only allows the operation of the drone within a range that you can see it.

“The exhibitors are asking for opportunities in BVOLS, which will enable them now to operate beyond vision. This means that they are able, for instance, to deliver medical supplies, and contribute to the agriculture ecosystem,” said Konza Technopolis Chief Executive John Okwiri. 

He added: “Currently, you find that the environment or regulation only provides for a controlled environment within which drones can operate as you see them and, therefore, the regulations should be lessened to allow uncontrolled operation and scalability.”

Mr Okwiri said Konza Technopolis has established a drone corridor, where taking off and landing are done and the agency has been given approval for BVOLS, where enthusiasts or operators can commercialise their drone technology.

Drones have transformative potential in sectors such as agriculture, healthcare, and logistics since they can reach places where human beings cannot.

They now also have an impact on wildlife protection and have also revolutionised mapping and surveying, enhancing accuracy and efficiency in geospatial data collection.

Mr Okwiri said the fact that Konza Technopolis has a data centre, provides a good ecosystem within which innovations in drones can be scaled.

The two-day summit, which was organised by Konza Technopolis, African Drone Forum, Pravesh Global and Kenya Flying Labs in partnership with KCAA, WeRobotics, Bootlab Dynamics and Kenya RedCross and sponsored by Germandrones and Kenya Airway’s drone subsidiary Fahari Aviation, is the third one in Africa after similar events in Tanzania and Rwanda.

The global Unmanned Aircraft Systems market size is projected to reach $43 billion (Sh5.5 trillion) by next year.

The Elevate Africa UAS Summit 2024 brought together local and international industry players, next-generation drone pilots, and enthusiasts to discuss the future trajectory of UAS technology across the continent.

There will also be a two-day workshop on July 29 and 30 to come up with recommendations to be forwarded to KCAA.

According to Konza Technopolis boss, Mr Okwiri, Kenya is among the leading countries in Africa together with South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Ghana in drone technology, thanks to its internet infrastructure, including 5G, and a tech-savvy youthful population.

He said the tough regulatory framework in Kenya has seen only zipline companies approved for BVLOS, but even this is limited to some areas.

According to KCAA Director General Emile Arao, there are 26 Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) operator certificates and 16 Unmanned Training Organisations (UTOs) in the country.

The limited players in the sector were attributed to the tight regulations.

Drones are only allowed to go above 400 feet, about 120 metres from the ground.

Cleopa Otieno, managing director of Kenya Flying Labs, a network of drone operators, echoed Mr Okwiri’s sentiments, saying there is a need for progressive regulations.

He also said the cost of operation of the drone also needs to be looked at by the regulator, where KCAA currently charges Sh2,500 per day. 

“The charges should be calculated based on time and duration and not just per day. For instance, there should be charges for hours, days and months and not just Sh2,500. They should find a model that works so that if I have a long-term project, we can have an arrangement that does not require me to pay Sh2,500. Imagine if you have a project that takes a couple of months or a year. It can be very costly,” he said.