The Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) Symposium, organised by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), held in Abuja, Nigeria, opened immense possibilities for African states to explore how RPAS could benefit people and what the challenges they face in aligning RPAS development and supporting regulatory provisions. Roy Ezze reports.

There is strong excitement and apprehension in West Africa over the prospects of unmanned aircraft loosely referred to as drones. The region is the least vibrant aviation region in Africa in terms of aviation activities and infrastructure. There are strong hopes of air transport improvement in the region; just as the West Africa’s biggest economy and most populous country in Africa, Nigeria, is experiencing economic recovery from the recession that held it down since mid-2016.

The poor state of land transport infrastructure within and between the 16 West African countries makes air transport indispensable for the region. Now the unfolding prospect of drones adds a new excitement to air transport in West Africa.

The number of drones in the region can only be guessed; however there is notable increase in request for permission to operate drones among states in the region. States have stepped in to manage the growth and operation of drones to ensure safety, security, protection of privacy and overall sanity in the use of drones. In Niger, for instance, Mme Chaibou Rahmatou, Director Civil Aviation in Niger, said because of the increase in requests for permits by drone operators the country has been compelled to develop a ad hoc procedures for registration of such activities. She added that Niger is working to develop proper regulation for drones which will align with the expected guidelines of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

The Agency for safe navigation in Africa and Madagascar (ASECNA) is another think-tank developing procedures and guidelines and willing to share experiences on managing drone operation. The director general of ASECNA, Mohammed Moussa, speaking through Sidi Kone, head of Air Navigation Department of ASECNA, at a drones conference in Abuja in August 2017, said sharing of information on this new area of aviation is important for African states.

At the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) Symposium in Abuja, ICAO and other stakeholders agreed to develop guidelines for the seamless integration of drones into conventional civil aviation to safely coexist with manned aircraft operation. As a stop-gap, individual countries are developing guidelines to manage drones operation awaiting the establishment of guidelines by ICAO. Manufacturers, users and regulators are tasked to with collaboratively to produce acceptable regulation to suit conventional civil aviation and new-comers who use drones from the general non-core aviation public.

Togo has also acknowledged the rising demand for drone licence. A representative of the country’s Air Navigation Department said the request for drone permit is growing rapidly, and the country wants to partner with other countries in the continent to effectively manage this trend. According to him, though the traffic in the country is less compared to other countries with vibrant aviation industries, Togo needs to develop its regulatory structure to manage drones use.

Nigeria has created a portal for drones aimed at data gathering for effective monitoring of drones in the country. Hadi Sirika, Minister of State for Aviation in Nigeria, while emphasising the essence of regulating drones in the aviation industry, also emphasised that regulation of drones will be unrelenting on safety, but “friendly” as not to stifle the benefits drones can bring to Nigeria’s economy. Nigeria is one of the countries in Africa with very high number of drone activities, which feature mainly in social events like weddings, schools graduation, elections, among others. The director general of Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), Capt. Muhtar Usman, emphasised the commitment to effective regulation of drones in Nigeria to preserve aviation safety.

Rasheed Oluwaseun Mosuro, workgroup leader, Nigeria Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (NRPAS), said drones bring several benefits to the Nigerian economy in the areas of environmental monitoring, improved security, reduced exposure of people to risks especially in dull, dirty dangerous…working at heights. Drones also help in maintenance inspection of roads, drainage, pipeline, power line, aircraft etc.; and in disaster relief, as well as accurate trending of data and accuracy of geo-informatics or mapping. He however said drones regulation faces several challenges such as inadequate public awareness concerning the risks to manned aviation and lives / property on the ground, shortage of skilled manpower and academically trained professionals. There is equally RPAS and parts’ standardisation / certification, difficulty in monitoring illegal RPAS operations due to its small footprint and cost of automated monitoring solutions. He highlighted the challenge of operating drones in a region with security risks, and challenge of identifying the boundaries of a well balanced “risk based” regulation.

These are being reviewed by stakeholders in the region to make sustainable progress in the integration of drones into manned aircraft operation system and environment.

In this regard, Iyabo Sosina, the outgoing secretary general of African Civil Aviation Commission, called for harmonization of regulation of drones and manned aircraft in Africa, stating that Africa will benefit immensely from drones. Already, the use of drones has supported the delivery of medical supplies in Malawi by the UNICEF. According to Emmanuel Sakaa HIV/AIDS Specialist for UNICEF in Malawi, the effectiveness of drones in Malawi makes a positive statement on the potentials of drones especially in remote parts of Africa.

Capt. Nuhu Musa, Nigeria’s representative at ICAO and ICAO’s Second vice president, emphasised the need to ensure that Africa benefits from drones in a safe, secure and integrated operating environment, calling for stronger regional collaboration. In the same vein, Boni Dibate, director, CANSO-Africa, urged for smooth and safe integration of drones in aviation operations, just like Capt. Fola Akinkuotu, managing director of Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA), who refers to drones as “new and promising chapter in aviation industry.”

Over 750,000 small UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) owners have been registered by the US FAA, including more than 40,000 in 2016. It is hoped that data collection ongoing in Africa would soon give a measurable number of drones in the region and their growth rate which is necessary for regulation and effective planning.

Though no drone collision with manned aircraft has been reported in Africa, mid-October 2017 Marc Garneau, Minister of Transport for Canada, announced the first case of drone collision with passenger aircraft, thus heightening the alarm on the proposed integration of drones into mainstream air transport. This raises apprehension over the need to speed up the development of regulation by ICAO and subsequent adoption by states.

Unlike in congested airspaces, some observers believe drones operation may not yet be a challenge many parts of Africa. This however does not eliminate the risk of accidents if drones are operated without effective control and regulation.

Beyond the aviation industry, there is strong excitement and expectation over the anticipated use of drones to deliver cargo to parts of Africa facing the challenges of poor road and rail access.a

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