The great drone revolution is afoot. Unmanned aerial vehicles are causing ripples across the world. This revolution follows the script of two other recent technological revolutions that took place just a few short years ago: mobile phones and computers.
Mobile phones democratised communication. This was made possible by the initial ‘convergence’ of digital technologies: telecommunication and computers. Computers had earlier gone through a similar path. Their initial application was in research. They eventually ended up changing the way we work and play; they are also the result of convergence of technologies.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs, also popularly known as drones) will be no different. The initial application opportunities will mirror those that are available in the General Aviation industry. General aviation deals with aerial photography, survey, advertisements, crop dusting etc. This is however only the beginning. The great drone revolution has yet to hit us.
Are we adequately prepared for adoption of this technology? The technology arrived with a bang. True, the middle class is awash with ‘toy’ drones, posing a danger to all and sundry. Many will remember a bewildered head of the defence forces ordering down a media drone during Jamhuri day celebrations of 2014. The country was caught flat-footed with this new security threat. A de facto ban was issued, and it became illegal to own or fly a drone for the next three years. Thousands were subsequently impounded at JKIA.
Regulator caught wrong-footed
KCAA, the aviation regulator, quickly abdicated its regulatory role to the Ministry of Defence. The rule-book literally had to be re-written. In Kenya, this resulted in the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Regulations, 2017. In these regulations, the requirements for a drone pilot mirror those required in the ground school training for a manned aircraft pilot. They also distinguish themselves by the extremely heavy fines and harsh punishment levied for every infraction. I have not seen any other regulations that are so severe. It is prudent to err on the side of safety and caution and take a conservative approach in aviation. Safety issues cannot be under-stated, and drones are a safety nightmare. However imagination is still needed in dealing with new challenges.
Drone revolution poses challenges
Top among the challenges opened up by drones are concerns about security, safety and privacy. Quadcopters are the biggest culprits. These are the latest evolution in the ever-evolving technologies of UAVs. Their design features four rotors in a rectangular like frame. Many typically carry a camera, or some other payload.
Several concerns have been raised about the danger posed by drones to aircraft. There have been several reported near misses.
However three disturbing recent cases involving drones and aircraft stand out:
- The collision of a recreational drone and a US Army Black Hawk helicopter near Staten Island, New York in September 2017 See: Drone operator blamed for midair collision with Army Blackhawk helicopter
- A collision between a drone and a small commercial aircraft during final descent to Jean Lesage International Airport in Quebec in October 2017 See: Drone hits commercial airliner in Canada, no injuries
- The crash of a Robinson R22 helicopter in Charleston, South Carolina, USA in February 2018. See: Probe after ‘drone made helicopter crash’
New convergence of technologies
UAVs are essentially aircraft with no human being on board (sometimes more accurately called Uninhabited aerial vehicles. Opponents of the term Unmanned argue that this implies that there is no human control. There is human control, only it is not within, but out of the aircraft; hence the term Uninhabited ). These aircraft have been around for a surprisingly long time. The first quadcopter was invented in 1920. We owe their re-emergence to modern developments in battery, mobile, remote control and manufacturing technology. The modern quadcopters are perhaps the closest things to Flying Carpets that have been invented. Their versatility is unlike anything else in aviation.
UAVs is a truly disruptive technology whose effects will probably exceed several times over that which was experienced with mobile phones. A new convergence of technologies involving smartphone technology, robotics and electric propulsion will probably result in the greatest disruption yet. The current regulations assume that all UAVs operate within line of sight under the control of a remote pilot. Yet technology now allows for the design of fully autonomous UAVs with arduino board based autopilots. Some of these can fly autonomous circuits without human involvement. The possibilities are endless. And blanket bans will not be effective. Geo-fencing requirements that are meant to provide a virtual perimeter in the operation of drones are only effective for drones bought in a regulated shop. It is amazingly simple to design and build a capable home-made quadcopter.
Embrace the technology
Kenya needs to come up with a sectoral policy on UAVs. Regulations for UAVs should encourage innovation. Challenges facing Kenya are quite different from those facing the developed countries from which we take all our aviation regulations. Engineering schools in Kenyan universities are still busy designing energy-efficient jikos, a task better left to polytechnics.
Perhaps this is the entry point for modern innovation that will provide employment in the 21st century. Recent reports have lauded Kenya’s progress in Innovation, comparing our position with the heavyweights of the continent, topping continental giants, South Africa and Nigeria. Drone technology should provide the impetus to leapfrog the formal aviation industry with its high technology and safety barriers.