Opinion

How do drone regulations impact agricultural development in Africa?

Worlali Senyo

Smooth ride for drone operators in Ghana

The potential of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones as they are commonly known, to support smallholder farmers to make key decisions on their farms is huge and cannot be overstated. Drone support services, such as farm mapping, yield estimation, input application and crop health assessment, can help smallholder farmers to improve their productivity and increase income.

However, there are some challenges which hinder the ability of service providers in using the technology to address farmer issues; a notable one being government policy and regulation.  

In Ghana, although there are no drone specific laws as yet, existing laws like the Ghana Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) Act, 2004 (ACT 678) and the Ghana Civil Aviation Safety Regulations 2011, L.I. 2000 provide a framework that governs drone operations. The current directives by the authority require that:

  • One has obtained a permit to import and fly the drone
  • The operator of the drone must be registered and certified where applicable
  • The drone must be operated under specified guidelines given by GCAA

My organisation, Farmerline – a technology company that aims to empower smallholder farmers to become successful entrepreneurs by connecting them to information, services and markets – has met these requirements to operate a number of drones to explore extending support services to farmers through a capacity-development initiative supported by CTA.

The process to register for a permit and operate a drone at the GCAA is reasonably quick and straightforward. First, a one-page application form providing details about the organisation/individual, the type of drone, and stating whether the drone is for private or commercial use must be completed. Then, copies of the operator’s national identity document have to be included and a registration/permit fee of US$20.00 (€17) needs to be paid, which has to be renewed annually for each operator. Following from that, the GCAA provides a letter granting a permit to import and fly drone(s). The authority records each drone’s serial number and provides a unique registration number. Like most countries, flying drones in restricted zones is highly prohibited – these include airports, military zones, national parks, heliports, residential/private property, etc. An explicitly written permit from the GCAA and the police is required to fly drones in such areas, however, the GCAA requires no such permit or written request to fly drones over farms as long as the guidelines are adhered to – the above registration, approval and permit process is sufficient for this, which is all Farmerline needs.

Beyond the delays that are characteristic of most public institutions and the initial lack of clarity about what is required, our experience with securing a permit to use drones to support smallholder farmers was a relatively easy process. Compared to other African countries, where permit and application processes cost thousands of dollars, I can confidently say the regulation in Ghana is very supportive of service providers. This is most likely to foster the development of innovations that deliver value-added services to users, especially farmers. It is no surprise that the GCAA mentioned in a personal communication that they have over 400 drones registered since September 2016.

I see an opportunity for GCAA to further enhance the regulatory environment and make it friendlier for organisations and individuals to register and secure a permit to operate drones by automating application and payment processes. Secondly, providing a section on the website with information on how to get UAVs/drones registered, and an interactive map to help operators know areas that require explicit approvals to fly drones would be beneficial so people do not get convicted to jail terms for up 30 years for unauthorized operations of drones. Beyond that, engaging with the public to create ample awareness of what is required to operate a drone will encourage more people to regulate and register their drones.

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.