Drones in Ugandan skyline help access areas beyond air traffic

Wednesday June 5 2019

Ivan Bamweyana

Ivan Bamweyana 

By Ivan Bamweyana

In this era, 21st Century technology continues to leapfrog 20th Century infrastructure drawbacks. The explosion of advanced technologies today has indeed forced itself on the agenda of every sector.
In Third World countries, technology has continued to enjoy a comfortable lead over bureaucracies, laws, security, budgets, and institutional developments. However, once technology expands with no litigation, it poses a threat to administration and financial undertakings, and even more importantly, to the security and sovereignty of a country.
Today, one of such technologies is Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) also termed as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS)/ Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA)/ Unmanned Aircraft (UA)/ or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). These have generically been termed as drones. Unmanned aircraft are indeed aircraft with a pilot in command.
The drone industry is valued at an estimated $127b according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) study. Drone technical know-how is a new addition needed to tap into the billion dollar industry and its usage has grown vastly. Although it is mostly known for its military and recreation purposes like photography and videography, drones offer a wide range of commercial services; in health, countries like Rwanda continue to enjoy the use of the aircraft with blood delivery across hospitals.
And not only that. A kidney needed for transplantation was delivered by a drone at the University of Maryland Medical Centre, beating the time delays. Specialised drones have also been deployed in precision agriculture, disaster management, geographic mapping, shipping and delivery, aerial photography, law enforcement, wildlife, search and rescue, weather forecast, surveillance, airstrikes, bomb detection, archeological survey, urban planning, waste management, mining, and so on.
Today, 26 per cent of African countries have developed drone regulations and 39 per cent have conformed to the drone readiness index. This is because drones operate in non-segregated airspace with commercial aircraft. This has made respective Civil Aviation Authorities to take the lead role in preventing the threat to civil aircraft posed by UAVs.
Although many parts of the world are still understanding and starting their journey with drone technology, the technology (which seems to wait for no man), is scrambling to new heights with Nano drones coming into play creating a future of multiple drone objects with cars, motorbikes, smartphones, and cinema screens on the immediate lineup. Also on the agenda are balloon drones as network masts stand at 20kms above the ground.
And then there are those areas drones access that are well beyond the air traffic, such as wildlife and weather. But not the eventualities have not been thought of. As a result, civilian air traffic will soon struggle to cope with numerous flying objects. This triggers an immediate need to provide autonomous traffic control systems.
In Africa, South Africa trains and licenses pilots, Malawi has developed a drone testing corridor to African and global partners, and similar efforts have been observed in Benin and Zambia. In East Africa, Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania have been the early adaptors with Uganda slowly poking the surging technology. Rwanda has embraced drone technology a notch higher by adopting Performance-Based Regulations (PBR).
Unlike conventional approaches that focus on specific equipment requirements and struggle to keep up with technological innovation, PBR allows operations and regulations to respond dynamically to technology challenges.
According to the World Economic Forum, in PBR, the government states its safety threshold and companies provide technologies and operation mitigations stating how they score against the threshold. This allows for technology advancement rather than retaining a specific type of technology.
In Uganda, the absence of a UAV Act or regulations does not mean one can fly whenever, wherever and however you like. Imagine a collision with the Ugandan darling bombardier!
With advanced drone software, areas like the airports, security installations, heights above 400ft are delineated no-fly zones.
Basic intuition could also guide you not to fly over embassies, presidential security, State House, or during bad weather. In essence, drone flights ought to be under a license inclined to insurance, safety, visual meteorological conditions, airworthiness certification, accident reporting protocols, specialised beyond visual line of sight acceptances, privacy regulations, flight height regulations, yield way to manned aircraft procedures, communication mechanisms to air traffic control and a traffic collision avoidance system.
Inevitably, government agencies like the National Emergency Coordination and Operations Centre (NECOC), and KCCA have found it a high necessity to deploy drones as both an intervention and a way to ease their operations. However, efforts by private organisations and researchers that desire to cover wide areas through the right procedures are easily frustrated by clearances from security houses and related authorities.
This has resulted in a lot of unscripted drone flights posing privacy, security and safety risks to the unsuspecting populace. Given the cost-saving option to research, and operation with top-notch drone technology, the question still lingers for our country: When will the law match in rhythm with such technology to provide a regulatory framework?

Mr Bamweyana is Geo-Information Specialist.