International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) officially refers to drones as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), a name currently being adopted by the civil aviation authorities around the world, however drones still have varied names in various jurisdictions including Kenya and you will still come across Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems among many other names.
Drones are here with us, they could be flying, moving on the ground (Unmanned Ground Vehicles), under water (Aquatic Drones) or in any other format you could imagine. Drones are essentially robots and according to Wikipedia, a robot is a machine especially one programmable by a computer capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically. Drones are useful in Agriculture, commonly known as precision agriculture with numerous applications varying from targeted crop spraying with an advantage of precision, less effect on human beings in terms of inhaling, limited waste as opposed to using a manned aircraft, its also useful for pest and diseases identification as well as crops scouting. Using different sensors such as Near Infrared camera (NIR), a farmer can figure out if his irrigation system is effective by analysing how much moisture is on the leaves or the ground as a result of varying RGB colour spectrum.
In health they can be used to deliver medical supplies such as snake bites, blood and other critical life-saving medicine. In construction industry they can be used to inspect tall structures. Drones are definitely vital in aerial photography and videography, forestry management and conservation efforts.
Drones for Disaster Response and Management
According to the International Federation of the Red Cross nine out of ten disasters are ‘silent crises’ that rarely reach international headlines. Though their individual impact may be less – both in terms of death toll and physical damage – small disasters have huge human consequences. Flash floods, fires, and drought account for 42 percent or more of total economic losses in low- and middle-income countries. Small disasters become silent crises because of the relative lack of information on them. Not only is there insufficient data pertaining to the crisis itself, but also historical data to help identify more durable solutions than emergency relief. Local responders not only lack data to make the right decisions within the response, but also sufficient data to fully comprehend the scale, scope, and underlying causes of these crises, until it is too late.
A number of use cases for drones in disaster response and management such as search and rescue, light weight cargo deliveries like medicine and food stuff, mapping, situational analysis among others are critical, quick and time saving and would become handy if lives are to saved during such disaster’s. Using thermal camera attached to drones can help identify life under rubble of a collapsed building or land slide and inform rescuers exactly how to excavate in order not to harm life. What we have witnessed in the past could easily pass for harming the same life rescues intend to save if no technology is used to inform such missions.
Regulation of Drones
A lot has happened as regards drafting of legislation that will guide the use of drones in the country and from my experience interacting with the able KCAA officers in charge of this process, Kenya is well on track to effect the regulations that will not only open up the airspace for drones to be used but will also allow for research into emerging areas like artificial intelligence, virtual reality and machine learning which is where the effectiveness of the technology resides. Its possible today to code algorithms that for instance count and categorise wildlife during the wildlife sensors, identify ripe fruits from unripe ones in an orchard, identify pests and diseases in large farms among others using these emerging technologies.
There however have been concerns from the Kenyan public and most recently by the parliamentary committee on legislation which pointed out issues around poor public participation, high cost of permits and fines that KCAA needs to address.
The RPAS regulation needs to consider humanitarian use of drones and perhaps have its own special category so that during disaster’s, acquisition of permits and even equipment can be smooth and quick to help save Kenyan lives.
Kenya Flying Lab, an affiliate of WeRobotics plans to work with Kenya Red Cross and other partners to address localization of drones for disaster response and management, build local capacities around on specific use cases of drones during disaster’s and by extension explore using the technology to address food security for disadvantaged groups. WeRobotics and over 60 partners such as International Red Cross, WFP and UNOCHA developed a UAV Code of Conduct (www.uavcode.org) that informs the safe, responsible and effective use of civilian drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in humanitarian settings.