Kenya was set to be a perfect lab for commercial drones until regulators struck

A camera-fitted drone
A camera-fitted drone
Image: AP Photo/Ben Curtis
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Kenya could have been the place commercial drone use took off.

This January, three university seniors working out of their apartment launched Adriana Pro Films. Their start-up produces slick aerial video advertisements at $500 a job capturing Nairobi’s glassy apartment buildings, lush neighborhood developments, and luxury hotels – with just a remote-controlled helicopter bought online.

They tapped into one of the many opportunities for drones in Nairobi. A city always snarled in traffic, Kenya’s capital is a great market for air delivery of everything from prescriptions to gourmet cupcakes. And a nascent mining industry could use all the exploration help it could get.

The success of M-pesa, the first mobile money scheme on the continent, shows that Kenya can pioneer commercial technology. In just a few years, the Vodafoneowned service topped 15 million users. The swift success has been attributed at least partially to lax government regulation.

But when it came to drones the government spooked, slapping a blanket ban on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in January. Potential users now need a permit from the defense ministry – a lengthy process requiring rounds of paperwork and about $1,000 in fees, according to Moses Gichanga, a researcher with the Africa Center for Technology Studies in Nairobi who has partnered with the government to experiment with drones–in theory.

But with the ban, the most he can do is work with remote-controlled aircraft and envision the alternative.

Blame the terrorists

Blame Al Shabab, the Islamist militant group based next door in Somalia that has staged scores of attacks in Kenya. They killed 148 people at Garissa University in the northeast in April.

Kenyan authorities fear drones could help the terrorist group more easily stage attacks here. The irony is that by early regulation of commercial drones takes away any advantage Kenya might have had as a lab to develop business models when compared with more heavily regulated country like the United States or countries in Europe.

Patrick Meier, director of social innovation with the Qatar Computing Research Institute and the founder of the Humanitarian UAV Network, scoffs at the idea that a ban could prevent Al Shabab from getting a drone, considering they can be easily dismantled and put in a suitcase.

Robinson Gitonga Michuri, one of Adriana Pro Films’ founders, says the three friends ordered their aircraft online and another friend traveling overseas brought it back. No fuss.

“Al Shabab will get their hands on UAVs regardless of what the Kenyan government does,” Meier says. Raising the specter of Al Shabab might be the government’s way of quieting pushback, he adds.

And with drones perhaps best known among Kenyans for picking off Al Shabab’s leaders, it’s also hard for everyday people to disassociate them from killing, Gichanga says. Advocates like him have no opportunity to change the way people, especially the government, perceive the drones if they can’t fly them.

The ban, also motivated by personal safety concerns, according to the government, is the extent of any sort of policy on drones in Kenya. The Civil Aviation Authority was unavailable for comment, but it did confirm that the ban and the defense ministry permit are the extent of regulation, for now.

Getting a chance to get up in the air depends on who you meet at the aviation authority, Gichanga says.

“If you meet someone who has engaged with this technology, they’re very open-minded,” he says. “If they don’t, then you’re doomed.”

Good Drones

At a brainstorming session in Nairobi in October on how drones could be used for development projects, the discussion of ideas – vaccine delivery, identifying good grazing land during periods of drought, tracking rebel movements in eastern Congo – eventually deflated. Organizations worried aloud about investing in such projects, only to have them shut down. A 2014 experiment by Ol Pejeta Conservancy to use drones to combat poaching on its land received a cease and desist order.

Pointing to M-pesa’s success, the attendees noted that commercial uses – on-demand mapping, real estate imagery like Adriana Pro Films – might sway the government more quickly. In e-mails circulating after the workshop, they discussed the need for a policy lobby. So far, that hasn’t coalesced.

But Meier actually thinks humanitarian organizations will be the pioneers.

Companies, he says, are far more risk-averse because they are more likely to be shut down for breaking the law. International humanitarian organizations get a lot more passes and could bolster public lobbying efforts.

“The benefits are all the way up to saving lives,” he points out.

“What we need to demonstrate and have happen is just more examples of drones used for good.”