Delayed signing of drone regulations stifling innovation in Kenya

Last year the business daily reported that about 1,000 Kenyans had applied for licenses to operate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones for filming, photography, anti-poaching, mapping and other recreational and commercial purposes.

The Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) had earlier issued a cease and desist order the year before suspending the use of UAVs pending drafting of regulations. The institution did its part by inviting public discourse in drafting drone regulations which were subsequently presented to the National Security Advisory Committee which is composed of the President and national security chiefs for ratification.

Since it was just an issue of signing that was pending, KCAA expressed confidence that the drone regulations would be operative just a month after submission. Just to put it into perspective, the drone regulations were presented in August 2016 and it was expected that by September 2016 it would have been all systems go.

Fast forward to January 2017, we are still waiting with bated breath for a single stroke of the wand by the President. Just a single signature will unleash 1,000 dronepreneurs in one day. But as the days drag on, one wonders why the National Security Advisory Committee prefers to keep mum on the issue and in the process block fresh revenue streams from innovative Kenyans.

Perhaps there is a concern that ratifying drone regulations will open a Pandora’s Box of criminals and terrorists given that Kenya has special security problems. But the counter-argument is that criminals and terrorists don’t give a damn about regulations anyway and will expeditiously use the available technological means within their reach to launch an attack. If drones give them a favorable edge, they are probably using them already. Remember they’re criminals, which implies they have no time to wait for regulations.

There is perhaps another concern to do with invasion of privacy. Given that most drones are fitted with cameras one could say that that is a fair argument. But I cast doubt for drones having the capability of capturing astounding detail from high up. Most of them capture general views. Besides, drones are very noisy contraptions and before they snap up-close photos of people they would have been spotted immediately.

As the deafening silence from the National Security Advisory Committee drags on, a number of drone enthusiasts continue to have their devices gathering dust. Photographers and filmmakers cannot take breathtaking photos or cinematic views lest they be slapped with a fine or spend sometime in the cooler given the apparent illegality of flying a UAV. A case of an Australian tourist who was fined Kshs 50,000 for taking pictures at Amboseli National Park is instructive.

On the other side of the house, from which I come, a number of surveyors and mapping professionals are raring to try new deliverables to take competition and innovation a notch higher. Small-scale remote sensing and 3D mapping are some of the deliverables surveyors are itching to try in order for them to join their counterparts worldwide who are already part of the revolution. With drone mapping, surveyors will avoid the prohibitive costs associated with buying or hiring a manned aircraft to carry out aerial mapping.

Recently, Kenya made a profound statement in the fight against poaching by setting ablaze the largest stock of ivory the world has ever known. It was a show that ivory is only valuable if it remains attached to the animal host. Isn’t it then self-defeating for the government to hurt innovation meant to hammer poaching the final nail in the coffin? Constant UAV aerial surveillance could make all the difference in protecting the remaining elephants and rhinos in combination with the current anti-poaching efforts. As it is, use of helicopters is too costly and their noise gives it away sending poachers scampering to their usual hideouts.

If there is someone reading this article with an ear to President Kenyatta, kindly whisper a few words to him regarding the signing of drone regulations. Tell him a single stroke of his pen has the potential to unleash innovations and opportunities of immense proportions. We are already on our marks…getting set…. to GO! The silence of the starter gun is agonizing.

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