Emerging Technologies

What the world can learn from Rwanda's approach to drones

A drone drops its first blood delivery to a hospital in Rwanda in October 2016

A drone drops its first blood delivery to a hospital in Rwanda in October 2016 Image: REUTERS/James Akena

Amanda Russo
Director of Communications, Crypto Council for Innovation
Harrison Wolf
Associate Director, Advanced Aviation, Flight Safety Foundation
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

What’s the story? Right now, most countries restrict who and how you can fly drones. They can only be flown within the operator’s line of sight, and operators cannot oversee more than one aircraft. Safety and security are important, but these regulations mean we are not maximizing the benefits that drones can provide for everyone.

Drones are great for doing dull, dirty, dangerous and data-rich jobs. You can fly a drone through a field of volcanic ash or have it inspect a power line. Instead of a human conducting aerial surveillance for many hours a day, drones can be deployed to continuously scan an area. And drones can help save lives.

Certain remote areas of Rwanda’s mountainous countryside are difficult to reach. In rural hospitals, healthcare providers struggle to provide adequate blood supplies to mothers during childbirth, and inefficiencies in the logistics and storage of the blood cold chain exacerbate wastage of vital supplies.

In 2016, the government of Rwanda brought in Zipline, a California-based drone start-up, to improve blood delivery. This evolved into a drone delivery programme on a national scale, leading the world in its impact and scope. Lives were saved and blood wastage nearly eliminated, demonstrating the vital role that drones could play.

Rwanda accelerating and scaled the benefits of drone technology. In 2017, as the positive impact from initial tests were apparent and the programme began to scale throughout the country, the government of Rwanda entered into partnership with the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This new partnership looked to foster a broader ecosystem of unmanned aircraft systems, to build on the success of domestic and international operators in Rwanda. These strategies are intended to accelerate and expand the types and benefits of drone operations while mitigating risk, creating a model that can be used by other regulators and policy-makers around the world.

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Crucially, Rwanda provides access to airspace. The country’s new performance-based regulation opens the door for drone companies and manufacturers to test their new technology, if they can prove that it meets safety requirements. Rwanda gives drone companies and manufacturers something that they cannot easily get in the US or Europe: access to airspace in a timely manner.

What is the performance-based regulation that Rwanda adopted? It means that airspace can be accessed by any unmanned aircraft on a mission-specific basis. The government specifies the safety standard of the mission, and the drone operators specify how they are going to meet it. This regulation is agile. It enables the government to keep up with the rapid development of the technology. Certification takes time, and technology is moving faster than governments. For example, by the time Amazon got clearance for its drone, it was multiple versions ahead of the version that had been approved.

Why is this important? The regulation cuts the time to access airspace and expands the range of possible applications. With this framework in place, Rwanda has removed the limitations and constraints that drone companies and manufacturers experience in the US and Europe, giving them a sandbox to test their ideas.

Is Rwanda the first? A lot of countries are considering performance-based regulation, but Rwanda is the first country in the world to implement it for all drones. And regulators are already looking at replicating it. Tanzania, after seeing the dramatic benefits that drones present, recently turned to Rwanda’s regulatory framework for guidance. One senior aviation safety technician from the Tanzanian Civil Aviation Authority announced: “We have taken the regulatory framework that Rwanda has passed and the work that the Kenyan CAA had done as models for our work. We want to have a flexible, scalable regulatory framework”.

What else we can expect from 2019? The World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be releasing the Advanced Drone Operations Toolkit (ADOT) at the Annual Meeting 2019. It provides case studies from Rwanda and Switzerland on implementing performance-based regulation, so that other countries can learn from those models. Currently, several governments in Asia are expected to announce they will be using the ADOT to develop regulations that will enable their own drone delivery programmes.

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