Kenya now drafts regulations, joins Rwanda to allow drones in its airspace

Sunday April 17 2016

Drones spray pesticides on a farm in Bozhou in

Drones spray pesticides on a farm in Bozhou in Central China’s Anhui Province. Kenya now becomes the second country in the region after Rwanda to regulate the use of UAVs, which are controlled either autonomously by onboard computers or by the remote control of a pilot on the ground. PHOTO | AFP 

By Allan Olingo

Imagine getting a call over the weekend that a drone will land at your doorstep in a few minutes to deliver a hot pizza.

Well, in a few months, this will be possible after the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) issued rules guiding the use of drones also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Two years ago, an online firm, Kilimall, declared that it was planning to start using drones to deliver goods at the doorsteps of its shoppers, adding that it had already acquired the machines for testing. 

Kariuki Maina, Kilimall marketing manager, said they were in discussions with KCAA and the Ministry of Defence over the ambitious programme. They didn’t get far, because there was no regulation governing the use of the technology.

The publishing of the rules came as good news to firms like Ol Pejeta Wildlife Sanctuary and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), which have been planning on using this technology to fight poaching and increase surveillance. In 2014, a request by Ol Pejeta to use drones in fighting elephant and rhino poachers on its 90,000-acre private conservation facility was rejected on security grounds.

The Conservancy’s chief commercial officer, Robert Breare and public relations manager Elodie Sampere said the plan to launch the $30,000 pilotless drone to enhance protection of wildlife has been dropped due to rising insecurity.

Ol Pejeta had planned to launch the two kilogramme drone in June last year after successfully testing a model drone by the US-based manufacturer Airware. The ranch had also received approvals from relevant agencies in the government. Currently, the ranch spends $220 per hour to hire helicopters for surveillance.

KWS, on the other hand, expects to deploy this technology in manning parks to detect poaching. Currently, it uses light aircraft and helicopters for surveillance of the park.

Fighting poachers

Paul Udoto, spokesman for KWS, said the $103 million project funded jointly by the US, the Netherlands, France and Canada will provide the rangers in the 52 national parks across the country with real time support and data to fight poaching.

“Our pilot project with this technology has been a success and it has shown the way ahead in combating this menace,” Mr Udoto said.

Kenya now becomes the second country in the region after Rwanda to regulate the use of UAVs, which are controlled either autonomously by onboard computers or by the remote control of a pilot on the ground.

Uganda had banned importation of aerial camera drones due to security concerns and the absence of regulations in the country.

South Africa banned drones in June 2014, but promised to publish recommendations after a year, which it did they became effective mid last year. Currently, it is one of the world’s leaders in progressive drone lawmaking.

Mutia Mwandikwa, communications manager at KCAA, said they hope the regulations will guide the use of drones in the country.

“This move is aimed at safeguarding the airspace and forestalling dangers that the drones may pose to citizens if they are allowed to operate without clearance from the authorities,” Mr Mwandikwa said.

In the draft regulations, KCAA has capped the maximum height the drones can fly at 400 feet above the ground, with those seeking higher operating heights required to seek approvals. This also sets the stage for organisations fighting poaching or dealing cinematography and photography to make use of the technology.

Currently, those seeking the services have to go to jurisdictions like South Africa.

In the draft regulations, KCAA has categorised drone use under sports, recreation and commercial activities, with the latter attracting stringent measures. It has also classified the drones by weight and use: Machine weighing five kilogrammes and below; to 25 kilogrammes and above 25 kilogrammes.

Drones falling under the recreation and sports categories will be required to be members of a club duly registered by KCAA, with the drone owners required to take a minimum of third party insurance.

The draft rules also ban the flying of the drones over security installations, close to aviation hubs or airports and at night. Failure to adhere to the rules will attract a fine of $5,000 or a jail-term of not more than three months.

Commercial services

Companies seeking to offer commercial services using drones will have to seek clearance from the Ministry of Defence and also have their pilots trained. The agency has also set a May 31 deadline for anyone seeking to operate drones, or those currently having them to register with it.

Last year, alarmed by the increasing use of drones in the country, KCAA put up a notice advising the owners of drones to seek clearance from the Ministry of Defence before testing or operating UAVs. This also affected those who sought to buy UAVs.

The clearance from Defence Ministry is linked to security concerns and comes at a time when Kenya has been hit by a string of deadly attacks in Mombasa, Lamu and northern Kenya, which were blamed on Al Shabaab.

Rwanda has been at the forefront in the region with the use of this technology. The Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority issues permits for aerial photography; for crop monitoring/inspection; search and rescue; delivery of emergency supplies; research and development and educational and recreational.

However, those seeking to carry aerial photography or over flight of security-sensitive locations have to seek clearance from the Rwanda National Police, Rwanda Defence Force and Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Agency for the use of radio frequencies.

Last week, Zipline International, a Silicon Valley startup, said that starting July under a partnership with the government, it will be using drones to deliver medicine and blood to patients in Rwanda.

Keller Rinaudo, the firm’s chief executive officer, said the drones will ferry supplies to hospitals and health centres across Rwanda.