Rwanda – Accelerating The Drone Revolution

Rwanda played a crucial role in developing the world’s first how-to-guide for governments to legalise drones. The Advanced Drone Operations Toolkit (ADOT) is set to be released this week at the World Economic Forum.

The toolkit is geared towards governments looking to quickly create socially impactful, advanced drone operations, which could include fully-autonomous flights.  Lessons learned from Rwanda’s experience could now be scaled around the world and help accelerate the drone revolution.

The toolkit aims to develop regulatory frameworks and airspace management practices that empower society to make better use of airspace. It also seeks to enable safe, clean and inclusive use of drones for delivery, mobility, aerial data capture and transportation of people. It will achieve this by:

  • Supporting regional harmonization of performance-based regulation by developing pilots and policy recommendations (with Rwanda as the first milestone)
  • Creating a Drone Innovators Network composed of progressive civil aviation authorities and supported by industry to accelerate regulatory innovation and create a toolkit of best practices
  • Developing principles for accelerating and lowering the cost of aircraft certification while maintaining safety
  • Launching a global urban aerial mobility challenge to enable interested governments to include urban aerial mobility in future mobility solutions

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

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.

A Zipline worker technician launches a drone in Muhanga. Photograph: Stephanie Aglietti/AFP/Getty Images

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”.

Information you can expect to find in the Advanced Drone Operations Toolkit (ADOT):

  • The toolkit was developed in collaboration with the Government of Switzerland, the Government of Rwanda, and leverages the work of the Drone Innovator’s Network (DIN) hosted in Zurich in June 2018. The Toolkit was created by working with 10 Civil Aviation Authorities from 5 continents, 8 IGOs (including leading aviation authorities ICAO and CASSOA), and 23 private companies sharing their perspectives on the needs of the industry and how best to manifest government support.
  • The toolkit highlights the real-world success of drone delivery projects from Switzerland, Rwanda, and Malawi to illustrate the leading implementations of drones into supply-chain for high priority and significant missions.
  • This toolkit provides modular lessons based on experience from leaders at all levels of government to advance their country’s drone experiments and to overcome the hurdles that have been faced by others.
  • The World Economic Forum will implement these lessons alongside with government partners over the next two years.
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