Why global universal application of drones in unmanned aircraft system is not fully operational in Nigeria — Fortune Idu

As awareness on the use of drones technology increases in the country, there are indications that the technology may soon be used to fly passengers. In this interview with SHOLA ADEKOLA, the coordinator of dronetecx in the country, Mr Fortune Idu, spoke on the reports of the drones already submitted to the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority and creation of drone department at the regulatory agency amongst others:

WHAT is drontecx technology conference 2024 all about?

Drone techs is to help to promote the new emerging technology which is the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), which is an aircraft that is remotely piloted and does not have a pilot on board. The drone itself, which is UAS, has a lot of functionalities now, you know It’s advancing in almost all aspects of life. It’s not just about the aircraft itself, but what is important is the application of this miniature aircraft. And sometimes, not really miniature, and sometimes even full-blown, big, sized aircraft systems can, at this point of our technological development, be controlled from a remote station. And it comes with high level of sophistication to do a lot of things. So, drone application has been found in area of mapping, survey, has been found in area of medical delivery, humanitarian purposes, search and rescue, search and rescue in marine area, search and rescue in earthquake areas, disaster areas, even search and rescue in where you have aircraft accidents, you still can actually deploy drone to do an initial mapping of those disaster areas and carrying out a first-hand risk assessment of what the area is, what are the nature of the incident, the size of incident, and also assess the hazardous nature of the environment before you can deploy human beings. We also have drone being used in firefighting. We have drone, of course, in medical delivery. So, you’ve got drone almost applicable in everywhere, including agricultural areas. You have drone carrying out spraying. In agricultural area, where you have been used to human being spraying the field for like about four days, a drone can do it in just a matter of few hours. So, these are those benefits that has come with the application of a remote piloted aircraft system, which is another name for drone, which is Repas or Aeropas.


The technology is not new to the developed world, but new to us here, in Africa. What is the level of awareness on the benefits?

In the first place, I just want to make it clear. It is still an imagined technology, so it is still relatively new globally. But the fact is that it’s not new in the sense that as a matter of fact, the first picture of the far side of the moon was actually taken by a remotely piloted aircraft system. So, such system is not very new to the scientific world. But the common application is what is new and imagined, which means common application in almost all these fields that I have mentioned. Yes, and all that is still what is new and still imagined. And other new areas are coming. So, it is now being developed. But what made what I call, acceptability or common, that is being common to people difficult was the fact that there are risk factors associated with the use of unmanned systems. You have risks of it being flown within a crowded area, risk of it dropping from the skies, that is safety risk. You have security risks. Then, of course, you have privacy issues. So, for that, those are the constraints that has held the fast development of these vehicles in this country, in the whole world. But ICAO is moving very fast and closing the gaps in these areas to find a common regulatory framework, robust regulatory framework that will guide the utilization and operations of this vehicle so that it does not interfere with all these areas. And don’t also forget that there is also a very big interference which has to be managed, which is the drones. This is an aircraft system being found in places where you have manned aircraft system. The manned aircraft system has not fully integrated the application or the same airspace for drones to be easily applicable. If you find a drone within the airport environment or within the territory of the normal manned aircraft, it becomes either as an obstacle or a security or safety hindrance. And ICAO is trying to find a commonality between these operations. So, for that reason, the global universal application of drones as you can have in umanned aircraft system is not fully harmonized and is not fully operational. However, use of drones in countries, from countries to countries, are limited to the regulations of the countries. And so, they are still being developed in terms of acceptable universal regulation. And this is what ICAO is doing. So that is the constraints that we also have in Nigeria.  CAP 21. That is the drone regulation for Nigeria has just come out. It was launched sometime last year. And we are still trying to understand and appreciate it. But a lot of activities is actually going on in the country as it relates to usage of drone in medical supplies. You have things, companies like Zipline that are doing in Kaduna. And then you have also drone application by youths, by younger people in areas where you have photography, wedding pictures, recreational drone applications. These are applications within what they call, for those youths, within what they call visual line of sight applications. But for a greater, longer application where you cannot see the aircraft, which is beyond visual line of sight, there is a lot of regulation that needs to be put in place. So that is what we don’t have.

It is still seriously guided by NCAA and of course the Office of the National Security Advisor because of the fear of what can be used in terms of security issues.


Which government agency should give approval for drones coming into Nigeria?

The first question about if you have drones being developed, used in the country. Of course, because it’s a miniaturized technology and the technology has come in different levels of applications. You have things like CKDs, Completed Knockdown Equipment parts and these Completed Knockdown parts can easily be reassembled here in Nigeria and it is relatively easy to assemble. You know, sometimes we have the difficulty in separating who call themselves manufacturers and those who are actually assembling or reassembling. So, assembling, yes, a lot of people are coupling back their drones here. You have the blueprints, the paperwork, you can put that together. But still, in terms of manufacturing, some people have actually come to us.


We, the drone tech people, being the formal promoter of drone technology in Nigeria, drone businesses and all that, they have come to us to claim that they can manufacture. I haven’t been to any of their facilities, but I know of one of our participants of the drone tech, which is Aerie, that from what they displayed at the previous exhibitions, showed that those things were actually manufactured here in Nigeria. You can see the materials that were used, you can see the coupling and all that. It shows that they were actually manufactured in Nigeria. But one of the parts, the drone itself, the features is in three sections. You have the hardware, which is the rigid body. You have the software, which is the language which the drone understands and how it can behave and what it can do. Then, of course, you have the communication link, which is what connects the drone with the operator. So these three things are the major things which the regulator and the manufacturers and those who use operators must understand very well how they interplay. And so, this manufacturer who we’re showcasing here, of course, has the capacity to tell the drones to do whatever they want to do, because it’s a software designer. And that is one of the most critical parts. And don’t forget that in this era of artificial intelligence, you can find that drones in some areas in the world can have the capacity to begin to talk to each other. And this is where we are tending to. Once we’re able to get to the level where the drones can talk to each other, then we will now be able to carry out full-scale monitoring through sensors that the drones do not collide with each other and the drones do not collide with manned aircraft and the drones do not collide with structures in the sky. So we are trying to be, the world is tending to us, optimizing the technology of censoring and monitoring and giving the drones that capacity. Once the drones have that capacity, then I can assure you, you are likely to find flying aircraft, I mean flying taxis, which means drones that will carry people on board to different locations.

That is what we are ultimately going to see in the next 10 years. You’re going to find capacity for drones to uplift people and take them completely unmanned. All they need to be told is where it’s going and when it gets there, it brings the person down and then moves to the next point of location of where they are meant to reside. So that world is coming. Okay, then the second question. Bringing in drones. Well, the agency that is fully in charge of regulation of every drone activity in Nigeria is NCAA. However, there are other agencies of government who are in charge of collecting revenues for imports, which is customs. So unfortunately, there is a shadow around everything, around all this, which is Nigeria’s national security advisor of this country, who is presently in charge of the security usage of drones. So for that reason, and since the regulation has just come out, it is not fully in scale. And NCAA has not come out publicly to announce the criteria for importation for full operations and everything. There is nothing clear. So we still have that shadow of fear around. And so because of that shadow of fear, you can find the police catching people on the road and say you are carrying a drone. You can find customs not clear with what the tariff is and say we are seizing the drone. They won’t even say give me the option of fine. They can seize it and say it is banned. So this is what DroneTex intends to do. This year’s conference, we’re going to look into all this and then we’re going to go into promotion for national policy framework. The question is what do we want to do with a drone in this country? How far do we want to go? Where is the world going? How do we want to catch up? What are the things we need to put in place to be like any other part of the world? Are we worried about us being a dumping ground? How can it create job? And what kind of job can it create? What is the potential of drone? And how can it fill space? Will it become our answer to the quest of Nigeria not being able to own their national carriers, airlines and all that? Because it is possible. It is possible because we’re not talking about technology that is bringing flying to almost a fraction of what it will take to fly a normal aircraft. So we’re talking about that. The technology is beginning to be very, very affordable. The materials for making the aircraft is beginning to be so much available. It is the technology in making of the aircraft of reusable batteries and highly durable batteries is making it possible for us to have drone to do almost everything. Then the technology of photocells, where you have to use the sunlight for energy, yes, is also making it possible for drones to fly with using photocells. So that is possible. So gradually, you are eliminating almost the greatest cost for flying is being taken out, which is fuel. Fuel has been the major cost for flying. And then you are removing that, then you are making it more accessible. You are also reducing the number of people who can be in an aircraft at a particular time. If you deploy, if there is, because Dubai will soon come up with a policy for drone taxes. So if you have that, it means that people can hop in and out of a place and in a small number of size. So the risk of multiple, I mean, accident that we’ve seen as multiple deaths still can be reduced. Of course, now you have the technology for sensors that is trying to make the drones application. The drones know when they are getting, their battery is getting weak. They can come down. Then the drones know when they are approaching an obstacle. They can avoid it. So there’s a lot that is coming with technology, artificial intelligence, cheaper battery available and very efficient batteries, I should say. Not really cheaper, but very efficient batteries. All those are making this unmanned aircraft system, future, a possibility.


Three years of  drone conference and level of awareness to the public?


Okay, it’s interesting to know that we actually started it quite rough. The fact is that we came out at a time when everybody say you cannot do it because it’s banned. And we have people who owned drones who will call us and say, I’m sorry, we can’t even come to your conference because we have been told that as we’re leaving that conference, we’ll be arrested. So we have that issue. And that then suddenly it was compounded by we getting a letter actually telling us not to, more like not to hold the conference. And the letter was circulated to all the armed forces, you know, that we cannot hold this conference. And then of course, that was the beginning. And I found it challenging and interesting. And we did respond back to the office. And of course, this time copied NSA. And we now clearly stated it, that, you know, you may come and arrest us, but I can assure you there are over hundreds of youths who have this same thing all over Lagos. And I’m sure that one of you who have written this letter have been in parties where drone is used to take your pictures. So, you know, all I’m just doing is trying to open up the discussion space so that people can come out from the closet. You cannot regulate what does not exist. So it is important for you to know, agree to yourself that it does exist. And you can bring them out from the closet and then you can regulate them. We need also to have database for people to be able to say, okay, these are those who use it. We are part of an organization called NUSA, which is an unmanned aircraft and remote robotics association. And we all joined hands together to continue to campaign. And of course we did letters requesting NCAA to give us a letter of no objection. That this is a civil drone application and Nigeria has had the first UAS or repass conference by IKO. Nigeria was among the first to hold it. And so why should we host such an important event? And then find ourselves locked up in the bedroom while others have started developing very fast. It was that letter that NCAA sent to us, a letter of no objection. And of course we now went into hosting the event. Apparently years later, we had the Office of the National Security Adviser also joining us in one of those programs. And then since then, all reports of the events that we have done, we used it as part of our own contribution to national development, to make sure that all reports of the event was

sent to Nigerian Civil Aviation Authorities, Office of the Security Adviser to the country. And while there are other agencies that may be in the pipeline for this. And of course that has also helped that I can tell you today categorically that one of the reports that we did on this drone and the essence has received commendation, acceptance from the Civil Aviation Authority. Because we requested that we need to have a clear department or unit that sees to this development. Because though it is an aircraft unmanned, but there is a lot of application that is related to this part of aircraft system that is not in the other aircraft system. One of them is that majority over, close to 50% of the activities that relates to drone are away from the normal aviation confines. For instance, telecommunications, communication link. The control between the remote pilot and the aircraft is a communication link. So the control, so that brings a lot of people who are not within the aviation system into the system. Then of course you have what is being used. Agricultural, delivery, mapping, surveil. All of them are claiming to be the one in charge of drone. Because they just can’t let go because of what it does for them. So you see, so that is one of the reasons. Because of the multiplayer nature or multi-sector nature of these drones, it is important that NCAA creates a distinct. We’ve started by asking them, we’re actually pushing for full directories. But what we’ve got is that today I am happy to announce that NCAA, based on some of our reports, has actually implemented creation of a unit that is going to be looking after drone. And in the next few time to come, hopefully sometime this year, we have a very amiable and responsive acting director general who is actually very proactive and is looking at this. And I’m hoping that in the very short time to come, we are going to have a full-scale national plan for drone development. And then all the people who are in the closet will come out. They will be registered, they will be licensed, they will be monitored, they will be classified. The applications will be classified. And then we can now have an emerging industry. I see it as an industry that Nigeria is going to benefit seriously from. Because it’s not capital intensive to get in. You understand? So having a regulatory framework is important. Is very important, yes. And a national plan for development is very important.


Speak more on your notion that may be in the next 10 years, something like a drone diagnosis might appear?


If the U.S. would take action, that may be penetration with the next 10 years. Let me tell you something, Nigeria has what they call spontaneity reactions in terms of development and it has happened more in technology than in any other place for instance, computer. When this thing came, everybody thought, almost all our secretaries are using IBM typewriter. How do you integrate them and all that? And there was this thing about you want to take us out of our jobs. Then of course, just suddenly the whole of Allen Avenue, to save this floor on Allen Avenue, all of them became computer centers for training people. Everybody, so before you know it, everybody got online. And the story is a different thing today. It also happened with telecom. When we’re struggling with ‘not nine not’ and all that, people said it was not going to work, it’s going to be only for the elites. It’s going to stop there. And they were enjoying it. And just suddenly, immediately GSM came. It became a different ballgame. You cannot believe it. The highest selling of Samsung, go and check this thing, is coming from Nigeria. One of the biggest markets in the world is coming from Nigeria. That is what techno is trying to catch. One of the biggest markets of Samsung is from Nigeria. So that tells you that this thing is up. Nigeria wants technology. Nigeria wants to be able to catch up where others have taken pain to struggle to get it. So for me, right in Nigeria, all we’re just waiting for is one, to see the international, the global regulatory framework that allows for integration, what they call integration of airspace, where drones and other forms can now integrate with the normal aircraft system. Once that is done, and the risks are reduced in terms of, listen, then infrastructure, to be honest, infrastructure is there. 5G network is there. States like Lagos and some other states like Abuja and all that, you’ll probably find these things happening quickly. Because to fly now from here to Lekki, you know, hop in and hop out, will be made available, I can tell you, from drone techs’ reports, there are a lot of people who are working on this right now. There is a lady who is working on vertipods. There is a guy who is working on vessels, that is, the aircraft system. They are working on understanding it. I personally have been exposed to vertipods because I work closely with Winning. Everybody is looking to see this harmonization. Once it’s harmonized, because the technology will be cheaper, so it is easier. See how long it’s taken us to transit into our national carrier, having fallen out from the race. It is because of money, because of insurance and the rest of that. But with this technology, once it’s been done, it’s been proven everywhere, we’ve got the population, people will come here. Don’t forget that Nigeria is now having the highest number of private jets in Africa. So if where the issues be what we are thinking, our thinking is to just be in one small aircraft, let it take us to wherever we want to go. So we are going to embrace it. So we’re only waiting for it to be right. And the awareness, yes, we’ve started creating all this type of awareness. What we’re trying to do is create the academic awareness so that we don’t lose out in the technology trend. Create the technology transfer awareness so that our people will know what to look for. Create the manufacturing awareness so we can identify whether the components of these things can be sourced here. For instance, the materials for making these batteries are available in some African countries. I know Congo, for instance, is the world producer of this material. You know, where all this, they are using for making all these batteries. Nigeria, we have heard that in the north, that you have these materials and probably that is what is fueling this attack. So these things are the things we should start looking into. Availability of Nigeria has almost everything. You probably, we have, for instance, the things for making the body of the aircraft.

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