Shipping & Logistics

Drone use needs tightening to check smuggling

Civilians are allowed to fly drones at no more than 400 feet above the ground. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Civilians are allowed to fly drones at no more than 400 feet above the ground. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

You have probably seen a drone at the marathons. Or maybe it was late last year when you noticed one flying just above your head at a charged political rally.

One thing about those remotely piloted aircraft is that they can be quite intrusive. They know no boundaries and can land in rugged terrains, islands, bushes or other locations considered “remote” by conventional transport service providers.

The Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems Regulations published by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) late last year to pave the way for non-military use of drones appear to have adequately responded to that intrusion.

Flying drones over strategic installations, radar sites, communication masts, prisons, police stations, courts of law and scenes of crime classified as “negligent” or “reckless” is an offence that attracts Sh1 million fine or six-month imprisonment.

Under the regulations, civilians are allowed to fly drones at no more than 400 feet above the ground, ostensibly to avoid collision with aircraft. 

Operators must also maintain a distance of at least 50 metres from any person, vessel, vehicle or structure not associated with the drones. Anybody who has followed how elite soldiers use drones to track down terrorists can easily understand why the regulator does not want to leave the “safe distance” to chance.

But there seems to be a terrible omission. A vessel that knows no boundaries can easily be used to promote illicit trade. 

There will be small drones (0-5kgs), medium (5-25kg) and large (above 25kg). For high value goods, that weight can translate to lost tax revenues running into millions of shillings in a matter of hours. Yet there is nothing in the regulations to compel drone operators to make customs declarations.

This is no idle thought. The international press is replete with stories of how cartels have used drones to transport drugs and smuggle other high-value commodities this year alone. If border agents of advanced economies lack a technology to screen airborne drones, what of Kenya and its East African partners?