Legislative vacuum grounds cargo drone contest in Kenya

Drone_Flickr_Ars Electronica
Copyright: Flickr/Ars Electronica

Speed read

  • The Flying Donkey Challenge aims to boost R&D into pilotless cargo drones
  • The authorities who must sign it off fear terrorist attacks
  • The hunt is on for new locations, but the challenge has been halted indefinitely

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The first Flying Donkey Challenge, a competition to boost research and development into pilotless cargo drones, has been indefinitely delayed due to Kenyan authorities’ current security concerns.
The contest, organised and funded by Swiss non-profit organisation La Fondation Bundi, had been due to be held in Kenya in November. It aims to spur research into solutions to the technical, logistical and design challenges facing the development of cheap cargo-carrying drones, which the foundation calls ‘flying donkeys’.
As of March, 33 teams from universities, start-ups and established companies worldwide had applied to take part. The foundation hopes that by 2020, flying donkeys will be able to deliver 20 kilogram payloads as they race around Mount Kenya for a multi-million dollar prize.
Cargo drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), may be useful complements to the transport infrastructure in vast and sparsely populated regions, not only for commercial delivery, but also for development work such as disaster relief, or the delivery of vaccines to remote and inaccessible areas, according to foundation director Simon Johnson.
The foundation recently reported that, following the terrorist attacks at Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi last September and on the coastal town of Lamu in June, Kenyan military and civil aviation authorities considered drone flight to be a potential security threat. And because permission for the race would create legal precedent, given the lack of legislation on drones, the authorities would not be able to sign off the event in time. 
The high-profile nature of the Flying Donkey Challenge, and the potential ease with which a drone could be hijacked and turned into a weapon, would have posed additional risks, he adds.
Although alternative locations are being researched and the foundation intends to restart the challenge in the future, the time needed to make the necessary practical and legal arrangements has caused the challenge to be halted indefinitely, says Johnson.
Due to the fast pace of research in the field, Johnson says, it was thought to be unreasonable to keep competitors “in limbo”.
The drone work of team Hamali Angani has been undermined by the cancellation of the contest, says team member Peter Mbari.
The team had planned to use funding available to contestants to jump-start its project (up to US$300,000), demonstrating Kenyan capacity for drone research and building, as well as gaining exposure.
“It’s very frustrating, because we lose the funding, exposure and data-sharing infrastructure,” says Mbari. “We’re still developing the technology, but at a much slower pace.”
Johnson says that global regulatory policies for drones have not kept pace with the technology’s development.
The safe integration of UAVs into civilian airspace poses a new set of technical and operational concerns, according to the International Civil Aviation Authority.
These include the consideration of collision detection systems, the protection of radio frequencies from drone communications interference, the licensing of ground-based UAV crew, and the development of a regulatory framework.
A lack of up-to-date regulation has already set back development projects and the drone industry.
In April, the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) announced its intention to “crack down on illegal drone flying”.
Then, in May, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya reported that its anti-poaching drone project had been delayed by bans on private sector drones.
The SACAA warning has dramatically reduced drone use in conservation and development projects, says Adam Rosman, managing director of South African drone firm Aerial Monitoring Solutions, and halted the growth of small businesses and jobs centred around drone creation.
See below for a conference video about the challenge:

This article was originally published on SciDev.Net's global Edition.