Opinion

How do drone regulations impact agricultural development in Africa?

Cale Ettenberg

Drone regulation in Kenya: about to take-off

A few months ago, FarmDrive had the pleasure of attending the Drones East Africa conference held in Nairobi. Sponsored in part by the Kenyan Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA), the conference was a mark of faith from the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) industry that Kenya would soon be amongst the handful of countries in the world with proper laws allowing the commercial use of UAVs/drones. Although the draft regulations have yet to be officially promulgated into rules, everyone who has an interest in drones in Kenya is waiting with bated breath for the KCAA’s work to be codified into law.

Here at FarmDrive, we are anxious for these draft regulations to become law. We believe that access to UAV data can spur innovation in the agriculture sector, specifically among the large number of smallholder farmers that are trying to improve the efficiency and utility of their farms. In our drive to support smallholders across Kenya, FarmDrive is examining how UAVs can support our work in expanding access to financial services and agriculture data. Access to timely, high resolution multispectral imagery can vastly improve the way insurance is offered to smallholders; helping to cushion the blow of environmental misfortunes beyond the farmers’ mitigation capacity. The ability to legally operate a UAV can’t come fast enough for us.

Nonetheless, we acknowledge the friction that exists between the push to legalise the use of UAVs, and the potential negative consequences that might arise in legislating too quickly. The question of how to retain authority and ownership over a system that is inherently decentralised and difficult to control must keep lawmakers up some nights. One of key matters that regulators must grapple with is the training provided to UAV pilots. The risk of inexperienced users sending devices flying into hapless bystanders or infrastructure is a real one.

Realising UAVs’ potential

Luckily, advances in drone technology are quickly reducing the need for expensive and time-consuming pilot training. These days, autonomous flight and collision avoidance are included in even relatively inexpensive UAV offerings, and with improved battery technology decreasing the weight and, therefore the danger of impact, these machines are becoming even easier to fly with every passing day. Thorough, but non-restrictive training of UAV pilots will be an important factor in jumpstarting the drone economy here in Kenya. There is amazing potential for the data and jobs that would come with legalised use of UAVs, and having a comprehensive system in place for the accreditation of UAV pilots will be an integral step in this process. Other countries have chosen to take a hard line with pilot training, forcing aspiring UAV pilots to undergo similar training to aircraft pilots. This process is time consuming, very expensive and introduces further barriers to entrepreneurs who want to be innovative with their use of UAVs. Ultimately, it runs the risk of stifling a nascent industry before it has the chance to grow.

As the Drones East Africa conference closed, a delegate commented on the ripple effects of timing. They stated that the countries in East Africa that regulated the use of UAVs first would have a massive head start in acquiring the inevitable surge in talent and investment legal UAVs would engender. Those countries that wait and debate exhaustively will be left in the dust. The Kenyan Civil Aviation Authority has done great work in crafting the draft regulations. It is my sincere hope that the government of Kenya recognises the potential that UAVs have to offer their country, and quickly moves to implement these regulations.

To learn more about the use of UAVs in agriculture and share your experiences join the UAV4Ag community at: www.uav4ag.org or follow them on Twitter at: @uav4ag and Facebook at: @uav4ag

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.