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Flying Drones in Africa: The Challenges and The Opportunities

The recent proliferation of drones throughout the African continent offers a ray of hope to the over one billion people living on the continent. New unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology can potentially solve some of the biggest challenges facing the region and be a major catalyst towards a future of prosperity, peace, and independence.

But even with so much hope and need riding behind it, movement towards this dream had thus far been slow throughout much of the continent. Many African nations are struggling to address a range of drone-related issues, including privacy concerns, maintaining public safety, and preventing the use of drones with malicious intent. As the development of a systematic, unified and practical set of regulations plods along, the sluggish pace has been holding the sector back from realizing its full potential.

But, the future still looks very bright. Some countries, like Rwanda, have already developed innovative guides for governments to effectively regulate the use of drones, while other regions have created research and testing programs that allow government entities and other parties to figure out how drones can help improve local conditions.

Why Are Drones So Important to Africa?

Africa is one of the most complex regions in the world. Yet, it's potential for future prosperity is nothing short of astounding.

It is the second largest and second most-populous continent in the world, home to over 1.3 billion people. Due to its size and proximity to the equator, the climate of Africa ranges from the arid deserts in the north to the arctic conditions on the highest mountain peaks, while its central and southern areas contain both savanna plains and dense rain forests. Africa is also the hottest continent on Earth. About 60 percent of the entire region consists of either dry land or desert.

Although it has access to abundant natural resources, including: diamonds, gold, silver, copper, iron, oil, salt, sugar, cocoa beans, wood and tropical fruits, Africa paradoxically remains one of the poorest and least-developed countries in the world. This is the result of a range of factors, such as poor central planning, governmental corruption, lack of infrastructure, low levels of public education, little foreign investment, and frequent conflicts between tribes.

Poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, inadequate water supplies and poor sanitation, as well as the frequent outbreaks of contagious diseases, affect a large population of African residents. Adding fuel to the fire, Africa's population has rapidly increased over the last 40 years.

While some African countries have been striving for development and are showing signs of independence, others continue to rely heavily on global assistance. Though that aid is coming, the reality is that many regions in Africa desperately need a more holistic, long-term development plan.

What Can Drones Accomplish?

Drone technology is already being applied to solve the challenge of delivering medical supplies to rural and hard-to-reach areas that are cut off from the main transportation systems in major cities. These life saving deliveries, made by an expanding fleet of cargo drones, include pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and blood packs. In an experimental program, called Dr. One, drones are being used to provide girls and young women with birth control supplies in the rural areas of Ghana on 5-foot-wide drones. Drones can also take blood and DNA tests to laboratories where the results can be analyzed and methods of treatment can more accurately be determined.

Perhaps the most exciting development for humanitarian aid workers in Africa is the use of drone technology in emergency medical situations, such as the rapid spread of contagious diseases including malaria, tuberculosis, and the deadly ebola virus. The delivery of medical supplies in such moments can save a lot of time and perhaps many thousands of lives.

In the area of agriculture, UAVs can help to enhance and optimize crop yields via aerial monitoring of fields and early stress detection in plants. About 65 percent of Africa's agricultural land currently suffers from severe soil degradation. When this situation is combined with the stressed infrastructure that hampers access to precious agricultural resources and the general lack of education among farmers, it's little wonder that vast agricultural areas are being underutilized.

Drones can now hover over fields of vegetables and grain, such as maize, sweet potato and rice, with special infra-red sensors that can collect the aerial data which farmers and governments can use to better understand and predict crop yield, assess crop health and keep the weed cover at bay. Perhaps most importantly, these UAV-equipped sensors can detect stress several days before it becomes visibly evident. This can then help both farmers and local governments take preventative measures that can significantly reduce regional crop losses.

All of this helps to save farmers money and time and enhance their crop quality, yields, and profits on those yields, and optimize the usage and output of farmland.

Aside from these two areas, the use of drones opens the door to a range of entrepreneurial activity. One area with a lot of potential is product deliveries. In the Nigerian capital of Lagos, for example, the traffic congestion is such a big problem that the government has been considering the use of drones as a delivery solution. There is also a strong need for aerial data solutions outside of agriculture, in the areas of mining, forestry, and civil engineering.

What Are the Obstacles?

As the use of commercial drones gains momentum in Africa, with humanitarian aid agencies and agricultural institutions taking up UAV technology to streamline their work, the lack of unified regulations ensuring security and safety remains a key concern.

For example, the civil aviation authorities in many African nations are struggling to keep the UAVs out of the way of aircraft and to integrate them within their air navigation and surveillance systems.

Another big area of concern is privacy. Flying UAVs with cameras, scanners, and sensors could allow unscrupulous individuals to anonymously collect and record sensitive or damaging information on civilians, businesses, and other organizations.

A further issue revolves around the fact that many regions in Africa are in near perpetual conflict, and that drones can be used to kill people in war. The use of UAVs within conflict zones may make them difficult to distinguish from the military drones that are used in battle. Local inhabitants may then be afraid to approach or interact with even a helpful drone.

Finally, since drones usually rely on electronic systems for navigation, data collection, and other procedures, they need to also be protected from hackers. Many UAVs can easily be hacked and ultimately hijacked by malicious third parties to support criminal activities.

Only certain regions in Africa, such as South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania have issued or updated comprehensive regulatory guidelines on the use of UAVs for sports, private activities and commercial purposes within their airspace. In South Africa, for example, some regulations for flying a drone include:

· Not flying within 10 kilometers (or 6 miles) of an airport without a permit from the South African Civil Aviation Authority.

· Only UAVs weighing no more than 7 kilograms (15.4 pounds) may be operated.

· UAVs may not fly within 50 meters (164 feet) of people or private property.

· Drone operators must maintain a constant visual line of contact with their UAVs throughout the flight.

· The operation of drones is forbidden at night.

· The use of drones inside and over national parks is strictly prohibited.

Other notable regulatory acts include requiring a special permit from the civilian aviation authority to fly over populated areas and crowds as well as the requirement for UAV operators to take out an insurance policy to cover their liability should they cause physical or bodily damage to another in the course of operating their drone.

Outside of these regions, many African countries are still struggling to put the necessary regulations in place to support UAV operation. In those regions, drones still exist, but they are taking to the skies illegally, manned by unregistered, untrained, and uninsured operators. These regions also lack the necessary surveillance and detection mechanisms that can ensure the safety of other airspace users and allow authorities to intercept UAVs that go against the regulations.

What the Future Has in Store for African Drones

As parts of Africa continue to sort out the regulations and systems needed to support drone activities- both in the public and private spheres- drone technology promises to advance in the region at an astounding pace.

Since the initial force behind the proliferation and advancement of drone technology was to leapfrog an inadequate infrastructure and get supplies to out of the way locations, the demand for nimble and fuel efficient cargo delivery options will no doubt continue to drive adaption and innovation.

Smart drone imaging is also expected to take off. There is a big demand for drones that are able to quickly and efficiently gather and analyze data on physical assets, geographical areas, as well as soil, water, and air conditions. As explained above, this is a prized set of services in Africa that can help with an assortment of monitoring and planning activity, as well as conducting important scientific research. More precise land mapping and surveying can also help with disaster relief and search and rescue missions as well as urban planning, as African civilians continue pour into cities at an unprecedented rate.

Finally, as drones fly close to high-density urban areas, quiet rural regions, and nature reserves, silent drone technology will be a growing priority since the noise often produced for UAVs may disturb the people or the wildlife within the area they are flying.

In short, though there may still be challenges ahead, Africa is a virtual tinder box of productive UAV activity and development. Not only can drone technology help to create a situation of prosperity and progress for the continent, but it promises to set a model of advancement for the entire world.

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