Picture: 123RF/feverpitched
Picture: 123RF/feverpitched

American online retailer Amazon and its Chinese equivalent, JD.com, completed their first commercial drone deliveries in 2016. In the same year, US logistics firm Zipline International began transporting blood products by drone to remote villages in Rwanda for that country’s government. The Zipline programme, which has clocked up almost 20,000 safe flights and has been expanded to include the delivery of 350 medical products, is the only national-scale drone delivery programme in the world.

As a result of Rwanda’s pioneering approach to regulating the sector, the number of unmanned flights in the country now exceeds the number of manned flights, and Rwanda has become the go-to destination for anyone wanting to learn how to unleash the drone economy.

"Strong political support at the level of the president is what it takes to leverage emerging technologies," says Paula Ingabire, Rwanda’s minister of information & communications technology & innovation.

"An openness to embracing [drone] technology was key."

A country also needs "agile regulations that can respond to the constantly changing environment", Ingabire adds.

Rwanda opted for a "performance best" approach to regulation. This approach puts concerns about a specific drone programme on the table and then invites drone companies to explain through dialogue how they would address them.

SA has gone from being leader of the pack to being in the middle of the pack
Timothy Reuter

Like most other countries, SA has regulated drones the other way around: trying to foresee all the possible dangers involved and mitigating against them through a myriad prohibitions and exclusions.

So, for instance, a private operator in SA may not fly a drone within 50m of a public road or structure, higher than any nearby structure or further than 500m from the pilot, or at night, or near an airport, and so on.

SA was one of the first countries to regulate the sector, but given how rapidly the technology is evolving, the SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) is already reviewing regulations that have been in place since 2017.

SA’s licensing process is also time-consuming and expensive. It takes anything from six months to a year, and it can cost more than R100,000 to get all the required approvals.

A corporate or nonprofit operator will need six separate approvals from the SACAA, while a commercial operator will need an additional air service licence from the department of transport. If an operator wants to use a drone for the delivery of goods, that operation will need to be specifically approved by the SACAA through the issue of a remotely piloted aircraft systems operator’s certificate, or ROC.

There are more than 1,200 registered drones in SA, and about 46 companies have been issued with ROCs so far. However, Sam Twala, who chairs the SA Federation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems — a nonprofit organisation dedicated to promoting the development of the sector — says these certificates are difficult to obtain unless the applicant is familiar with the aviation environment or uses a specialised consultant.

"If [the authorities] could reduce the processing time to three months it would make a huge difference to entrepreneurs and small businesses," Twala says. "I’ve had a lot of potential customers walk away when they’ve discovered that the process may take up to 12 months."

Timothy Reuter, head of drones and tomorrow’s airspace at the World Economic Forum (WEF), says SA’s regulations are "quite conservative" and not well suited to realising most socially beneficial drone applications.

"SA has gone from being leader of the pack to being in the middle of the pack," he says, adding that commercial drone operators from SA are now going to Rwanda because that country is seen as a "test bed" that encourages emerging technology.

Rwanda is not using drones only to deliver medicine and blood to inaccessible areas; drones are also being used to spray marshlands to control the spread of mosquitoes — an approach Ethiopia is now exploring to control the tsetse fly.

Elsewhere on the continent, the World Food Programme is using drones for aerial mapping and assessing the extent of damage after natural disasters. In Mozambique drones were vital in helping the UN agency plan routes and deliver food and other aid to victims of Cyclone Idai. The agency discovered that drones can even serve as relay stations when cellphone masts have been destroyed.

In China, JD.com — which has made more than 35,000 unmanned flights to deliver packages to customers in inaccessible rural towns — has invented a new job category: "village ambassador". These people take receipt of drone deliveries and disburse them to individual households.

In SA, drones are most commonly used commercially in the mining industry for estimating stockpiles and monitoring blast sites; in agriculture for crop surveillance; in the security sector for checking perimeter fences; and in the movie industry for shooting footage.

What it means

SA’s drone regulations are seen as prescriptive; Rwanda’s as enabling

SA game farms are putting drones to novel use to prevent rhino poaching by scaring off poachers and enabling anti-poaching teams to mount a rapid response to any incursion.

Though SA’s regulations make provision for the delivery of goods by drone, SA still lacks a traffic management system that caters for low-level drone operations.

Ireland uses a web-based system that users can download as an app on their cellphones. Users plan a mission and send a route request to the authorities, who ensure there are no conflicts with other operations, so as to avoid midair collisions.

The authorities then approve or deny the request online.

Zipline’s general counsel, Conor French, says that while providing regulatory certainty, as SA has done, is an important step towards establishing the industry, regulations themselves won’t unleash the drone economy.

"If SA wanted to work with us to find a use case for integrating drones with their health-care logistics, I’m sure we’d be able to … make that happen," he says.

He believes regulators in all parts of the world need to think about risk differently. "There’s the risk of society not getting the benefits of drones, not just the risk of the harm drones could do to humans," he said at a session on drones at the recent WEF event in Cape Town.

The huge Saudi Arabia oil blast carried out by drones last week is, however, a reminder of the security threat associated with unmanned aerial vehicles.

No country has found a solution to the problem of an anonymous weaponised drone being piloted remotely from kilometres away to hit a target with pinpoint accuracy. Making regulations more complex won’t deter terrorists who operate outside the law — it will simply increase the burden on law-abiding operators.

For regulators, striking the right balance between safety and security and unleashing the benefits of this emerging technology will be an ongoing headache.