ABUJA RPAS SYMPOSIUM: ICAO, AFRICA SEEK INTEGRATION OF DRONES IN AVIATION

  • Drone Numbers, Operation Rising Tremendously
  • Industry, Partners Confront Safety, Security Risks To Unstop Benefits Of Drones

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New Beginning

The civil aviation industry is now at the cusp of another revolution - the drone revolution, which brings excitement and deep worries at the same time.  According to ICAO, "Utilization of unmanned aircraft is increasingly getting diverse and complex posing challenges to safety of other aircraft and controlled airspace in general."

Possible unintended collision of drones with passenger-laden aircraft, criminal misuse of drones to breach safety, security and privacy are perhaps the major worries among aviation professionals and proponents of proper regulation of drones. Dr. Olumuyiwa Aliu, President of ICAO Council, states that thousands of drones are sold daily, and many buyers are unfamiliar with how to operate these machines safely.

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As aviation industry partners strive to contain the challenges posed by drones in order to support the realization of the economic benefits of drones, the number of companies around the world involved in UAVs has become absolutely tremendous. As at May 2017, for instance, over 750,000 small UAS owners have registered, including more than 40,000 in the last two weeks of December 2016, says a report from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Drones are not new; but what is new is that in order to achieve safe integration of drones in conventional aviation operation, new globally acceptable and easy-to-adapt guidelines that can be complied with especially by operators of drones are now needed. And, all partners must begin to learn afresh the rules and guidelines for the safe coexistence of unmanned and manned aircraft operation for a fruitful future in a more complex civil aviation system globally and in Africa.

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ICAO says it is "committed to developing standards and recommended practices and guidance material to augment industry efforts to ensure appropriate training, licensing of personnel and operation and oversight of unmanned aircraft operations."

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Africa's First Step

ICAO's first intervention to address this challenge in Africa came through the ICAO RPAS Symposium and Workshop for Africa and Indian Ocean (AFI) Region mid-July 2017, hosted by the Government of Nigeria in Abuja.

The all-important event brought into clearer focus the trend of drones in Africa, as all interest groups including African Civil Aviation Authorities (CAAs), drone pilots and operators, drone manufacturers and business owners who are potential drone users, etc., reviewed the real situation.

One remarkable revelation from the two-day symposium is the need for urgent development of regulations suitable to non-core aviation drone operators whose major interest is focused on raking in benefits from the billion-dollar drones market.

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Africa has a fast-growing presence of drones running into many hundreds or thousands. Several States like Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Togo, Niger, Ghana, among others, are at the moment gathering information on the number and operators of drones in their various jurisdictions to create a stop-gap control for drones before a universally recommended regulation of drones would emerge.

Senator Hadi Sirika, Nigeria's Minister of State for Aviation, says regulation of drones in Nigeria will be friendly and safe as not to stifle the huge economic benefits of drones in Nigeria. He says Nigeria has set up RPAS Safety Team to develop recommendations for effective RPAS regulation. He says Nigeria is the busiest and most complex airspace in the West Africa Region and needs to develop effective regulation for drones.

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Ms. Iyabo Sosina, the Secretary General of African Civil Aviation Commission, calls for harmonization of regulation of drones and manned aircraft in Africa, as she says Africa stands to benefit immensely from drones. Mme Chaibou Rahmatou, Director Civil Aviation in Niger, says the State has set up procedures for the registration of drones while its regulation is being developed. She notes that there is increase in request for drone permits in Niger which calls for proper control of drone operations.

Capt. Nuhu Musa, Nigeria's Representative at ICAO and ICAO's Second Vice President, says the industry in Africa must make the best of new ideas to ensure Africa gets the benefits of drones in a safe, secure and integrated operating environment. He calls for more positive collaboration in the use of RPAS to harness the benefits of safe drone operation.

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The Agency for the Safety of Air Navigation in Africa and Madagascar (ASECNA), which is in charge of air navigation services in 17 African States, says it is making remarkable progress in putting together the framework for regulation of drones. Mr. Sidi Kone, Head of Air Navigation Department of ASECNA, who represented Mr. Mohammed Moussa, Director General of ASECNA at the RPAS Symposium, says ASECNA is willing to share experiences and ideas with other States to enhance progress in the region.

The use of drones has taken a new level in Malawi where the UNICEF uses them for the speedy delivery of health items. Mr.  Emmanuel Saka HIV/AIDS Specialist, UNICEF in Malawi, says drones have become critical to save lives in view of the environment, transport and other challenges in Malawi. He says drone operation is still an evolving field and requires optimized network involving various agencies like Ministry of Defence, Justice, Transport, etc.

However, Mr. Tsepo Peege, South Africa's Representative on ICAO Council, while applauding the benefits of drones to improve healthcare, etc., calls for caution in promoting the use of drones in Africa, as he emphasizes the need for effective safety regulation of drones. "We need to regulate drones or we just remove them," he says, adding that Africa has achieved zero accidents in 2016, and drones should not be allowed to mar this painstaking accomplishment. Also, Ms. Boni Dibate, Director, CANSO-Africa, wants smooth and safe integration of drones in aviation operations, a view shared by Capt. Fola Akinkuotu, Managing Director of Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA). Capt. Akinkuoto canvasses against heavy regulation to accommodate the new and promising chapter in aviation industry.

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Regulation

Integrating drones into conventional aviation must be preceded by effective guidelines for the conduct of safe and secure operation of drones in the airspace. Part of the outcome of the Abuja Symposium includes that "Two streams of regulation are needed - one for RPAS, one for drones; these regulations facilitate different types of unmanned aircraft with their different types of equipment and operations."

It also notes that "States should embrace training of personnel to address the challenges of RPAS technology and associated systems that require high-level aeronautical knowledge for their operators and maintenance personnel including computer-based training." It underlines the "need to increase awareness and sensitization of community and government authorities on UAS operations, differences between RPAS and drones and what these differences require in terms of regulations and procedures."

Going by the resolutions of the Abuja Symposium, "In line with the recommendation of the African Telecommunications Union (ATU/UAT), States are strongly also encouraged to ensure that RPAS operations are conducted within the framework of globally harmonized spectrum for UAS in accordance with both WRC-12 and WRC-15 (Resolution 155), which together identify 5030-5091 MHz (C-band) as well as fixed satellite service networks (Ku-band)."

It calls on AFI States to "promote and maintain support for protection of aviation spectrum and/or explore expansion of spectrum availability in the future in collaboration with the ATU and national communications commissions as applicable. It recommends further that "CAAs and national telecommunications regulators should establish and/or increase collaboration to deliver rules and regulations providing more routine access to airspace and the necessary spectrum resources that RPAS will require in the coming years."

Given that drones are new-technology driven, more technology needs be infused into the expected regulatory frameworks, while young Africans need be trained to play increased roles in the emerging world of coexistence of RPAS and drones in aviation operations. Youths can "bring their familiarity with technology into the RPAS/drone arena."

The efforts to find the safest ways to integrate RPAS and drones into aviation will continue in Montreal, Canada, in September 2017when ICAO hosts the DRONE ENABLE, ICAO's Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Industry Symposium. African States will continue to ruminate on the ideas raised in Abuja and integrate them into the quest for collaborative and effective regulation on the continent.

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