Drone technology and the law in Rwanda, Tanzania

The following article, which first appeared on ICT Works, analyses the trajectories of drone technology development in Tanzania and Rwanda – two of East Africa’s leading countries when it comes to commercial drone applications.

It was written by Drs Andy Lockhart, University of Manchester, Aidan While, University of Sheffield, Prof. Simon Marvin, University of Sheffield, Dr Mateja Kovacic, Hong Kong Baptist University, Nancy Odendaal, University of Cape Town, Christian Alexander, University of Cape Town

Around the world, governments are wrestling with the dilemma of how best to re-regulate airspace to control and selectively facilitate commercial drone activity. 

Dronespace appears at once as a tantalising frontier for exploitation and a significant risk to public safety and security, where the rapid development and proliferation of drone technology continues to outpace existing mechanisms of control.

Although many aspects of flight are now automated in conventional aircraft, autonomous flying drones pose challenges to the prevailing logic of situated human vision and override. As cheap drones and experimental applications spread into new areas, airspace regulators are being asked to navigate and reconcile these growing tensions.

As the examples of Tanzania and Rwanda reveal, there is variation in regulatory responses, embedded in local contexts and ensembles of interests driving drone development. Nevertheless, the extension of centralised state control over dronespace in line with conventional airspace standards is the dominant story in both cases, suggesting powerful limits to the disruptive and democratising potential of drones.

In Tanzania, drone experimentation was initially able to proceed in a context of ambiguous regulatory authority. Led by the World Bank and particular branches of government, and funded largely by donor finance, various mapping projects established Tanzania as an early centre of African drone innovation.

However, anxieties about safety and security, especially in relation to Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and autonomous delivery services, led to a regulatory closing down of dronespaces. The nascent drone network in Tanzania was unable to allay regulators’ concerns or cohere a strong enough countervailing set of interests to force a more flexible approach or support for corridor infrastructure from TCAA, which extended its control over domestic drone activity.

Rwanda on the other hand, tightly controls drone ownership and there are strict protocols for registered drone operations. The landmark drone corridor network for delivery of blood and other medical products developed with Zipline has led to some of the most advanced and permissive regulations for semi-autonomous and BVLOS operations in the world, albeit still subject to tight regulatory control.

Zipline’s success in establishing a commercial delivery network in Rwanda has been heavily contingent on the government leadership’s political and financial embrace of medical delivery drones as a national development project.

Through this, the company was able to demonstrate the reliability of its infrastructural approach and systems, and cement its monopolistic position as a trusted service provider, attracting additional private flows of capital investment. Yet this took place under relatively unique conditions, where comprehensive ground and airspace control by the state security apparatus was a necessary prerequisite for the development of dronespace.

Implications for African UAV Regulations

The case studies in Making space for drones: the contested reregulation of airspace in Tanzania and Rwanda have important implications for literature on airspace regulation in the age of drones.

Africa Airspace is Not Unregulated

First, our findings refute Eurocentric notions of Africa as an unregulated testbed for drone experimentation. Although clearly structured by the legacies of colonial rule and logics of post-colonial development, African modes of airspace regulation are no less stringent than parts of the world, and commercial drone use is tightly regulated in line with ICAO standards.

Governments in Tanzania and Rwanda have maintained and extended regulatory control, and airspace sovereignty was unquestioned. The narrative of unregulated drone use in Tanzania before 2017 was never accurate.

The discourse in Rwanda has been about creating space for innovation in drone systems and delivery networks in particular. Yet while the country’s performance-based regulations have received plaudits for their flexibility by organisations like WEF, they are underpinned by uncontested governmental control over domestic drone activity.

Different Regulations for Myriad UAV Services

Second, our examples demonstrate the distinction between drone services that are limited to specific blocks of airspace for surveillance, mapping, crop spraying and so on, and cargo services which connect logistics hubs to delivery locations. Different services may require different forms of regulation and relationships between drones and infrastructure on the ground.

The temporary activation of blocks of uncontrolled lower airspace for mapping operations appears more straightforward to manage with licensing, permits and Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) monitoring, and potentially offers significant cost savings for certain services.

The question for BVLOS drone delivery, however, is how to create a more permanent infrastructural approach that can manage more regular traffic flying semi-autonomously between different locations, while meeting strict standards of airspace safety and security.

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