On Monday, 9th May 2016 – I was welcomed to the office by a flurry of emails from different sources all pointing to the same link, which led to the e-pages of a prominent Nigerian newspaper that conveyed the headline - Nigeria bans unauthorised use of drones. I became unsettled as each forwarded email from colleagues and superiors trickled in, all with a singular intention – to alert me to the potential impact of this news on our planned research activities involving the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)!
It was the beginning of the cropping season and preparations were at top gear to initiate geospatial data collection for a project focused on Taking Maize Agronomy to Scale in Africa (TAMASA*). We had invested immense time and resources to procure a fixed-wing eBee-UAV (plus accessories), completed intensive training to ensure industry-standard certification of our target UAV operators, and implemented pre-season flight missions – all in readiness for actual in-season data collection. We were ready to go, or so we thought, and we had no anticipation of any disruption.
A change in the rules
The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has the mandate for the regulation of airspace and provides general guidelines regarding the use of aircrafts and all air-borne technologies in the country. Information about when, where, how, and if such guidelines apply to low-altitude air vehicles was not widely available within the public domain, so amateur and professional drone operators generally operated their devices without restraints.
Upon further enquiry to verify the news headline, we discovered that the NCAA had not announced an outright ban. Rather, the agency had issued a press release stipulating guidelines for drone operators in Nigeria. After contacting NCAA for more details on the requirements for UAV authorisation, we received an official letter detailing the requirements with a referral to published guidelines (NigCars 2015 184.108.40.206). The new regulatory requirements include: (i) an initial non-refundable deposit of N500,000 (~€1,174) and an additional annual renewal fee of N100, 000 (€235); (ii) minimum share capital of N20 million (€47,000); (iii) security clearance from the National Security Agency; (iv) submission of authorisation application at least 6 months prior to the intended use of UAV. The indubitable bureaucracy that trails the navigation of these governmental requirements will inevitably lengthen the whole process.
While most of the stipulated guidelines may have been originally proffered for the licensing of larger aircraft operators and adapted to guide UAV operators, the new requirements simultaneously unleash important concerns and challenges that will likely shape the development of drone usage and drone ventures in Nigeria for the foreseeable future. For instance, the share capital requirement and application fees (without guarantee of approval) are likely to be a tall-order for emerging [small-scale] ‘drone-preneurs,’ who are already taking a significant risk by investing in a drone venture to service diverse Nigerian clients whose willingness to pay premium fees is yet to be proven.
Amid other concerns, NCAA’s guidelines do not consider the diversity of UAV users, therefore the requirements for usage are not tiered relative to location (within or outside City limits), purpose (research, leisure, or business), and intensity (casual or frequent). This non-segmentation of users arguably poses a presumably unintended consequence of choking the emergence of a potential industry before it gets a chance to see the light of the day; thereby cutting off the opportunity for the country to benefit from the expected growth of UAV-based global revenue, which is projected to reach €1.76 billion by 2022.
Can UAVs fly?
For our project, TAMASA, and other similar projects involving the use of UAV in Nigeria, our success so far with UAV usage is hinged on engagement with a highly relevant governmental institution that works closely with NCAA, the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA), which takes the lead as a technical partner during our flight missions. As applies to most new technologies, the piloting and testing of UAVs is a critical step required to make clear-cut value propositions to major stakeholders in the agricultural sector (and other critical sectors such as health, oil and gas, construction, etc.), which can then lead to sectoral value-addition and meaningful national development. Therefore, in a practical sense, the inability of individual researchers, young entrepreneurs, and mid-sized business owners to meet NCAA’s tight requirements constitutes a major disincentive for any advancement in the use and indigenous development of UAV technology within the country. Whether this is for better or for worse may be hard to predict. In any case, engagement between the relevant agencies and UAV enthusiasts/entrepreneurs to evolve a robust UAV-usage guideline will greatly influence the chances to fly UAVs and achieve meaningful gains without turbulence in Nigeria’s air and agricultural space.
*TAMASA is a project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to advance the use of innovative tools and technology to improve agronomic practices and yields among smallholder maize farmers in Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Tanzania.
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