Google News Labs Drone Camp — What Can We Learn As Africans?

Google Drone Journalism Conference, in Portland, USA

On Friday, August 18, africanDRONE participated in a three-day conference focusing on drone journalism, at the University of Oregon, in Portland, Oregon. The conference was arranged by Google News Labs, the University of Nebraska School of Journalism, and Poynter, a training organization.

africanDRONE founding members Unequal Scenes, MicroDrone, UhuruLabs, and African Defence Review were able to come to Portland to participate in the conference with generous funding from Google, ICFJ, and Code For Africa. Over the three days in Portland, participants listened to experts in the field of drone journalism discuss issues such as ethics, law, trends in journalism, and listen to a variety of case studies from leading drone journalists.

Moreover, there were a variety of modules focusing specifically on passing the Part 107 FAA license, to become a legal commercial drone operator in the USA. While at first glance that may not seem relevant in the African context, it was extremely eye-opening, and even encouraging, that a leading country in the drone market had decided to adopt such pragmatic and economically advantageous policies.

In fact, one of the major problems facing African countries currently is the regulatory environment in which commercial drone pilots operate. Chiefly, there are two problems: 1) Opacity, and 2) Over-regulation.

Drone legislation across the continent is a patchwork of law, proposed law (draft regulations), directives, and no law. In many cases, being able to fly commercially means you are either well connected, rich, or lucky. In many countries in Africa, capricious enforcement by the authorities, chicanery, and outright contempt and evasion of the law are the order of the day. By placing drone pilots in a legal limbo, or with semi-legal “permitting” processes running into the thousands of dollars per permit, many African countries are actually encouraging unsafe flying practices. Pilots who buy a drone find it difficult to organize, train, and fly without fear of citations, or even worse. Since laws change frequently and legal processes can be convoluted, an opaque system forms where non-compliance and even bribery are encouraged. It is very difficult to know exactly when are where you are flying legally, or what the law actually says.

South Africa, on the other hand, is creaking under the weight of its outdated, unduly burdensome drone regulations. These regulations are actually extremely clear and unambiguous in their permitting of commercial drone operations. The problem, however, is that the process is tremendously expensive, costing somewhere between $7000–10000 (this figure is an estimate from several sources, including my own RPL fees). In South Africa you must not only become a legal pilot, but you must fly under a business that is registered with what is known as an ROC — an RPAS Operator’s Certificate — that is expensive and time-consuming to obtain. In fact, only 16 companies have even been granted ROCs in the country. South Africa is in the unique position of being an economic and political leader, and as such, deregulation would go a long way towards influencing other countries in the region to also adopt a more conciliatory, informed, and pragmatic approach to drones.

Overregulation is not just a problem in South Africa. Ostensibly well-meaning legislation, for example in Botswana, severely hampers pilots. The law states that pilots cannot fly “Over built-up areas, less than 200m from any power line, over any major road, any tourism facility, or private property except with that person’s permission”. Requirements this strict bloats government, encourages noncompliance, and reinforces a patronage system of graft and corruption.

African leaders should be investing into ways to stimulate growth, encourage innovation, and create jobs. Drones are already delivering life-saving blood in Rwanda, combatting poachers in South Africa, and mapping flood-prone neighborhoods in Tanzania. Journalists are highlighting previously hard-to-see problems such as inequality, and climate change, using drones. Even Kenyan political parties are promoting themselves with drone video. Estimates at the potential missed opportunity every year from South Africa’s cumbersome regulatory process run into the billions of rands, and thousands of jobs.

Perhaps most importantly, the need for journalists and activists to have drones as a communications and investigative tool should be embraced as a right to free speech. africanDRONE supports activists and journalists with direct story grants who are using drone technology for good; whether uncovering what is hidden from the ground, or seeing things from a new perspective. Drone technology has the ability to be a great leveler in the info-sphere, allowing us to see into areas previously off-limits, uncovering information which may otherwise have never seen the light of day.

africanDRONE believes that safety of the public should be one of the chief considerations of drone regulation. But we also strongly believe that over-zealous safety concerns should be taken into context of a new generation of lightweight, obstacle-avoiding drones, with multiple redundant return-to-home systems. New commercial drones don’t just “drop out of the sky”, and we should be regulating drones from major manufacturers (like DJI, Parrot, SenseFly) with this in mind. Drones are becoming ever smaller, lighter, and safer. We need to consider this in light of the tremendous economic potential and right-to-information that drones provide.

That’s why africanDRONE supports an American-style (or Australian) pragmatic approach to training and registration of drones. These regulations include all the basic skills and knowledge that the current South African CAA RPL test does, without superfluous and monotonous lectures that have been appropriated from a necessarily more robust Commercial Pilot’s Licence (for airplanes). We believe that drones should be clearly marked and registered, third-party insurance should be mandatory, and reasonable no-fly zones around airports, over groups of people, and in sensitive areas should be enforced and respected. Lastly, and most importantly, the USA FAA Part 107 test costs $150 — that’s it. Licensing in African should be just as cheap, if not cheaper.

We believe Africans deserve better. We believe Africans should be empowered to fly drones and make money from their activities, safely and responsibly, without undue cost or burdensome regulations. We believe that African governments should encourage commercial drone operations through deregulation, and other economic incentives. And we believe that official training and permitting operations should be practical, cheap, and decentralized. If you are interested in helping us in this endeavour, please send an email to johnny@africandrone.org, join our Facebook page, donate to our non-profit organization, and help us spread the word of Drones For Good, in Africa.