Unmanned Airborne Systems (UAS) are increasingly affordable, capable and readily available. They are also cheaper to operate than conventional aircraft and helicopters. They are no longer gimmicks. They are here to stay.
But to maximize the opportunities they create, we have to safely integrate them into our skies, without negatively impacting the capacity and efficiency of the airspace in which they operate alongside piloted aircraft.
Latest estimates suggest there will be about 45 million drones taking to the skies by next year.
Africa is a leader in innovative UAS use. In Rwanda, the famous Zipline service has pioneered and revolutionised the delivery of medicines to people in remote and rural communities far from hospitals and clinics.
This year, Zipline announced its intention to move from a 12-hour, daylight-only service to a 24/7, all-weather operation. The company recently set up a similar service in Ghana to providing its 13 million inhabitants with instant access to urgently needed medicines.
The development of UAS technology is tracking the explosion of e-commerce along with applications reliant on data and remote-sensing, such as express cargo deliveries, cadastral and aerial surveys, infrastructure inspection and ecological monitoring of natural resources. Entrepreneurs in Kenya, Mali, Ethiopia and South Africa are at the forefront of the charge.
Importantly, UAS’s are playing a critical role in helping achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and in realizing the African Union’s Agenda 2063 vision of a united, prosperous, and self-reliant Africa.
At the same time, demand for commercial air transport of passengers and air cargo is also continuing on an upward trajectory. With the continent’s populace set to almost double over the next 30 years, Africa is set to be one of - if not THE - fastest growing markets for airline transport.
The number of aircraft and frequency of flights operating routes to, from and within Africa, is already doubling every 15-20 years and is set to accelerate.
Accommodating UASs and conventional aircraft in increasingly congested airspace, is a challenge that requires urgent, serious and harmonized solutions that are reliable and cost efficient. These must be underpinned by robust and appropriate regulation that promotes safety, without stifling the innovative and entrepreneurial potential that UASs represent
Regulations should not unintentionally delay and dilute the value UASs can bring to Africa by applying the same approach and regulatory framework currently used for commercial aviation.
Regulators and policy makers need to think differently about how best to regulate this rapidly evolving technology. As UASs become even more artificially intelligent, the solutions for safely managing and incorporating them in our airspace, while optimizing their expanded array of benefits, may also require the use of AI.
UAS’s have an important role to play significant benefits to deliver in Africa. But for their full potential to be realized they must be effectively integrated into air space without undermining safety, harming commercial air transport and other aviation activity.