By Philip Butterworth-Hayes
Academic researchers have completed a UK Royal Geographical Society (RGS) study on the political and institutional issues surrounding the opening of airspace to drones in Rwanda and Tanzania (“Making space for drones: The contested reregulation of airspace in Tanzania and Rwanda” https://rgs-ibg.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/tran.12448). The authors have reached several important conclusions about how airspace regulators should approach the launch and then expansion of drone delivery operations. The notion that the introduction of UAS traffic management (UTM) systems will pave the way for the relaxation of rules and procedures which currently constrain the sector has proved false, according to the authors.
Around the world airspace regulators are faced with the challenge of how to move at speed from the current restrictive airspace rules which govern flights by drones above people and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), to introducing new rules and procedures which will allow these flights at scale.
According to the RGS researchers this was the challenge facing both Tanzanian Civil Aviation Authority (TCAA) and Rwandan Civil Aviation Authority (RCAA) officials when drone companies between 2017 and 2019 announced their intention to launch extensive medical drone delivery operations in both countries, supported by inter-governmental agencies.
Tanzania in 2017 was hardly the ideal environment to trial advanced operational concepts such as BVLOS and flights above people at scale. In January 2017 the TCAA introduced Aeronautical Information Circular (AIC) for Unmanned Aircraft Systems AIC 5/18, which made drones subject to stringent regulations, standards, and operational restrictions of civil aviation – a move which was severely criticised by drone operators.
“During this period of contested reregulation, more purposeful attempts were made to cajole regulators into a more flexible approach, using the inaugural Lake Victoria Challenge (LVC) as a dronespace living lab, write the researchers. Bringing together 280 people, including government policymakers, regulators, consultants, ICAO officials, technology firms, and major donor agencies, this three-day international expo took place in the city of Mwanza in October 2018 to showcase drone innovation and opportunities in Africa….LVC hosted five drone manufacturers and four UTM companies, airspace regulators from nine African countries, and countless other stakeholders. The practical “challenge” for participating teams was to demonstrate drone technologies flying BVLOS through a 22-km corridor between the city and island of Juma over open water, including safe take-off and landing, across a complex mix of civilian and military airspace, monitored by ATC. This required a special permit authorised by TCAA, MoD, ATC, and other agencies. LVC pushed the limits of Tanzania’s regulations, but the hope was that by making the event symbolically “too big to fail,” regulators would be pressured to cooperate rather than obstruct the process. Obtaining the permit to stage LVC at all was considered a success. Most importantly, it created an opportunity to familiarise regulators with the latest drone and UTM technologies and demonstrate how a safe and secure corridor infrastructure for high-volume drone traffic could be assembled.
“Yet TCAA representatives were relatively unmoved by what they saw and the calls for a more flexible attitude. Pointing to continuing concerns over BVLOS and autonomous flying, they argued that drone operators’ lack of training and familiarity with airspace rules and language meant few of them “understand aviation.” In some ways, LVC even entrenched their views that influential drone interests saw regulation as an impediment to their projects rather than a necessity.”
There is no direct input into this conclusion from the drone operators involved or the UTM system suppliers to provide an alternative view. But what is clear is that the LVC trials did not result in the development of a national network of medical and emergency drone delivery operations, which was one of the expected results. However, in neighbouring Rwanda, Zipline has been able to develop an expanding network of medical product deliveries by drone. As both TCAA and RCAA have tightly regulated ICAO-based lower airspace regulations in place, why did the concept work in Rwanda and not Tanzania?
“Airspace regulators were tasked with finding a suitable configuration of airspace rules, designations, and protocols compliant with ICAO standards while meeting government objectives. Initially this meant classifying Zipline drones as state aircraft, and over time the creation of a system of highly structured, enclosed corridors, with the main flight paths branching off to more remote areas. Road crossings and population centres are avoided where possible. Flights are monitored and contact maintained with ATC, but close coordination with RCAA has permitted Zipline to gradually operate more autonomously. The whole project is coordinated by a high-level steering group of key government interests, including the Ministry of ICT and Technology, military and security agencies, the Rwanda Development Bank, and the National Commission of Research and Technology, which reports to the President’s Office. As one Zipline representative explained, planning and permission would have taken five to ten years in most countries but took less than two years in Rwanda because of the coordinated approach.
In other words, Rwanda built its regulations in concert with the development plans of a single operator – but only slowly and in a highly regulated environment, using the concept of corridors rather than free route airspace management.
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 that 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 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. This model suggests a process of slow evolution and reproduction of existing modes of airspace regulation, and the political question of who and what is granted airspace rights – and where – comes to the fore. Control over delivery routes will shape choices about what goods and services are delivered and to whom. Decisions about what happens in the air will have social, economic and environmental impacts on the ground, and are likely to become key sites of political contestation with respect to drone infrastructuralisation. The Zipline system in Rwanda (and now Ghana) is one way of creating an infrastructure of selective airspace enclosure, which could resolve competing demands. The creation of designated corridors enables willing governments and regulators to take more calculated risks in testing and developing drone delivery systems and technologies, moving beyond the regulation of individual drone operations per se, while maintaining strong hierarchical 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.
…. Though supported and boostered as “revolutionary” by the World Economic Forum…the permissive nature of the performance-based regulations should not be overstated. Rwanda has been far from an open testing ground for drone companies from the global north. Other drone interests, including Toyota, Wingcopter, and Airbus, have sought to enter Rwanda, but to date there have been no commercial ventures to match Zipline’s success.
The researchers came to two other conclusions. The first was the concept of Africa as being a continent of relatively light regulation where industrialised-nation drone operators can trial their concepts is profoundly untrue.
“Drones for good” programmes… are often constructed as distinctly African opportunities, where drones are positioned as an ideal technology for modernising, integrating, and “leapfrogging” the continent’s fragmented infrastructural landscapes, particularly between urban and remote, rural communities…One form this takes is the representation of African airspace as an under-utilised resource ripe for development in the fight against poverty and a context where drone companies can “test their prototypes and perfect their technology in field conditions and in countries where regulations are more favourable”. Numerous start-ups from the global north have moved into this space, including Zipline, Matternet, and Volansi (USA), Wingcopter (Germany), SenseFly and RigiTech (Switzerland), Wingtra, FlyPulse, and GLOBHE (Sweden), Swoop Aero (Australia), and TerraDrone (Japan)… While these kinds of drone initiative have unproven benefits for local communities, they often continue the long-running trend of seeing “African” developmental problems as solvable through technological innovation, and the colonial treatment of Africa as “living laboratory”,
And the second is that the economics of drone delivery are more complex than originally thought.
….Although intended to save transportation costs, Zipline’s system has proven more expensive than the road-based system. Its primary benefit has been a reduction in wastage of stored blood products (especially important in more remote facilities) from 6 to 0.3 percent, enabled by Zipline’s just-in-time system and access to exclusive air routes.
There will be competing views from the industry on the research findings and the implications this may have for regulators, operators and UTM service suppliers. But at the very least it provides substantial food for thought.
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(Image: Zanzibar, Shutterstock, Pakhnyushchy)