Last Friday, the Nairobi Garage hosted the Nairobi Drone Meetup that featured users of the remote-controlled pilotless aircraft who came forward to discuss their industry, the current and potential uses of drones, and a law on the horizon regulating them.
As it is now, using drones is still illegal in Kenya and they are not allowed into the country, and if a scan of your luggage at JKIA reveals a drone, it will be confiscated by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority. This was revealed at an aviation sector briefing in June this year, and it doesn't matter if they are large drones for photography, or small toy drones for kids to play with.
And yet drones are everywhere. At the event, one operator said that in the photography business, anything that used to be shot from a plane or a hired helicopter can now be filmed from a drone, leading to great cost savings.
Many political and development campaign advertisements and videos for the Jubilee Party and county governments included shots made using drones. Any Kenya tourism advertisement that shows flamingos flying off Lake Turkana and revealing pristine islands in the background, or a dhow in the Lamu or Watamu sunsets, was shot with drones.
Property developers are using them to update investors as they can engage operators to take pictures or video from a bird's-eye view that matches the original architectural drawings, and this will show a real-life update of the progress of a development.
The potential is limitless and drone uses are plenty. Police can fly one to see what is causing traffic jams. Engineers can check the extent of a leak in the roof of a tall building. Farm managers can zoom in over large fields to see if operations were properly done. For insurance firms, drones can be used to safely assess disaster sites, and they clearly have a future in logistics with global companies like Amazon researching such usage extensively
NOT JUST FANCY TOYS
Drones are not just fancy toys. They can also be real lifesavers. One of the speakers at the event was the CEO of Zipline, which operates the world's first drone delivery network for blood transfusions and emergency medicine in a partnership with the government of Rwanda.
The company now uses drones capable of flying 160 kilometres, at 100 kilometres an hour, and carrying 1.5 kilos or 9 litres to hospitals. The in-time delivery reduces waste and the logistics problem of hospitals driving to keep refrigerated blood on site, or having medicine go bad in stores. After Rwanda, Zipline is testing for Tanzania, where from a central site in Dodoma, they will be able to serve 1,000 facilities, then Eastern Kenya, and Ethiopia.
Drone operators are entrepreneurs who invest $500 (Sh51,500) for machines capable of good battery use, range, and shooting video, while a drone for a professional news organisation would probably cost $5,000 (Sh515,000). Operators are self-taught mainly from the internet and manuals.
CHALLENGES FOR OPERATORS
Drones are remarkable in terms of their hardware to scale. Operators can attach and remove bits, add more powerful rotors, cameras, batteries or new software downloaded from the internet. Challenges operators face include the lack of repair people when things go wrong, poor battery life, and the absence of drone traffic management.
The Zipline CEO ended his presentation with a warning to civilian Kenyan drone operators to get their activities legalised or one small incident could prompt the government to shut down all drone activity. He added that governments don't like drones, especially those with cameras, which can lead to concerns about compromising privacy and security.
Kenya has drafted rules for drones and one of the attendees gave a preview of the proposed rules. There will be three categories of drone use: recreational, private and commercial. The fee to register and operate a drone is likely to be about $200 (Sh20,600) and operators need to apply with an ID and a PIN, and show that they have undergone training, have good conduct, and have insurance for the drone.
The proposed rules are yet to go through public scrutiny, but it was agreed that it would be best if drone operators organised themselves as a professional body of experts to talk to the government, get funding, develop skills and organise training certification.