Similar to the growing U.S. interest in exploring civilian uses of unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS”), efforts are underway across the African continent to deploy UAS in innovative ways such as protecting wildlife, expanding internet connectivity to isolated communities, and delivering humanitarian aid.  In Kenya, Dickens Olewe and his African SkyCAM project is helping journalists to revolutionize their news reporting and coverage.

The winner of the inaugural African News Innovation Challenge, African SkyCAM “establishes Africa’s first newsroom-based ‘eye in the sky’ drones and camera-equipped balloons to help media that cannot afford news helicopters cover breaking news in dangerous situations or difficult-to-reach locations.”  It has the potential to address two of the main shortcomings faced by traditional news media in the region.  First, journalists who lack financial and technological resources to conduct remote reporting often are “‘risking life and equipment’” to get their story.  Second, by not resorting to state-owned UAS, journalists are able to maintain editorial independence in their reporting.

Use of UAS for journalism and other civilian purposes in the region is facing the same regulatory challenges which are delaying their widespread deployment in the U.S.  Although the Kenyan government has not yet established a regulatory framework for civilian UAS, it has indefinitely grounded both the Flying Donkey Challenge (a high-profile, Swiss-funded competition to develop flying robots which are capable of carrying heavy cargo over long distances) and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy’s wildlife surveillance drone.  Similarly, earlier this year, the South African Civil Aviation Authority announced a “clampdown” on civilian UAS, a warning that some observers believe has chilled this nascent industry.  However, it is promising that the South African government has stated that it is “cognizant of the urgent need and demand for UAS usage” and that it will be releasing an interim guidance document by March 31st of next year.  In addition, South Africa and other countries in the International Civil Aviation Organisation Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Group are continuing to work to develop a safe and harmonised regulatory framework.

In the meantime, African SkyCAM (which is looking to expand to Mozambique and Namibia) and others will need to pay careful attention to finding the proper balance between business, compliance, and innovation.

This post can also be found on GlobalPolicyWatch, the firm’s blog on public policy and governmental affairs issues.