Africa slow to develop flexible drone regulations for healthcare

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 06 Jul 2020

Drones are being successfully deployed to support medical and humanitarian projects across Africa, but for greater, more sustainable impact, they will need to be fully integrated into supply chains within an enabling regulatory environment.

This was the sentiment shared by experts during a webinar on drones for improving healthcare supply chains, hosted last week by Logistics Update Africa, in partnership with aviation and tourism publication STAT Times, a strategic partner of event organiser firm Messe Muenchen South Africa, organiser of Air Cargo Africa 2021.

During the roundtable discussion, experts from drone companies, humanitarian organisations and regulators noted drone development had been significant in recent years, with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) proving their value in numerous projects across the African continent.

However, they noted that regulatory bodies had been slower to develop regulations flexible enough to keep pace with this fast-changing technology.

Despite many ground-breaking drone applications in Africa, formalised regulations that will encourage industry growth are still lacking.

Questions also remain about ways drones could be deployed in supply chain management, and the need to weigh up the profitability and sustainability of drone services against the need to support remote communities with life-saving medicines.

Reji John, editor of The STAT Trade Times and discussion moderator, explained: “Drones have been an important topic of discussion for some time among regulators, NGOs and industry stakeholders working in last-mile logistics for African healthcare.

“We see significant acceleration of drones and UAVs being used for healthcare and humanitarian support, including vaccine distribution and also the potential delivery of a coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine when it becomes available. While there is a need to make every business profitable, at the same time we are cognisant of the fact that reaching the most disadvantaged is a priority.”

While countries such as Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, SA and Kenya are now expanding projects using drones for medical and humanitarian aid, many other African regions had been slow to create an enabling environment for drone use, noted panellists.

Last year, SA joined its African counterparts to deliver blood and medical supplies via drone. The South African National Blood Service (SANBS) partnered with the Western Cape Blood Service, to introduce a nationwide blood delivery drone service.

The SANBS delivers over 1.2 million blood products in eight provinces, with over 190 donor centres and blood banks.

Drone regulations vary widely on a country-by-country basis in Africa. Some countries require permits, others require licences, others require nothing at all. In some instances, bringing a drone into a country without the right paperwork can cause it to be seized at an airport’s customs.

Supply chain bottlenecks

Tautvdas Juskauskas, drone specialist at the United Nations International Children's Fund, noted: “It is not a simple and easy process to integrate drones into the healthcare supply chain – it is a complex process and requires the involvement and collaboration of many stakeholders, and regulations have to catch up.”

He also emphasised that while drones could play an important role in last-mile logistics, it is important to carefully analyse the supply chain to determine where supply chain bottlenecks occur.

“Delays are not always due to the transport network. We advocate that before investing in drone delivery, you have a comprehensive needs and demands assessment to see which part of the supply chain has bottlenecks.”

Juskauskas added that drone technologies are relatively new and there is a lack of evidence for their transformational impact, which could hinder health department moves to embark on large-scale drone projects.

Discussing regulatory compliance, Lawrence K Amukono, chief of the National Continuous Monitoring Coordinator at the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, said Kenya recently accepted its unmanned aircraft systems regulations after lengthy assessment and consultations. He noted that because drone technologies and applications are still evolving, the Kenyan regulators sought to be flexible enough to allow progress, while still mitigating risk to other air space users and third-parties on the ground.

“We now have a solid set of regulations that are implementable in Kenya. We realised drone operations aren’t like manned aviation operations, which have mature systems known to everyone, so you can be more prescriptive. We have come up with regulations that are fairly flexible, but we do require sufficient demonstration of measures in place to mitigate risk, the integrity of the technology and systems, and the procedures and processes in place.”

Amukono pointed out that drones could play an important role during the current COVID-19 crisis. “Organisations in Africa are now looking to use drones to address a number of issues while minimising human-to-human contact. We also see interest in using drones to patrol and enforce movement restrictions in some countries.

“Countries that don’t have fully-fledged drone regulations may be allowing these projects on an exceptional basis while air traffic is currently reduced. This could be beneficial as many bans on drones may have been based on lack of knowledge and this gives them an opportunity to discover the application of drones.”

Suzette Scheepers, CEO of Messe Muenchen South Africa, said: “The innovation now taking place on the UAV front is significant, holding promise for timely aid to reach remote communities and those isolated by natural disasters. However, collaboration will be needed by all stakeholders if we are to see drones effectively integrated into healthcare supply chains to serve communities across the continent.”

Drone technologies will be on the agenda at Air Cargo Africa 2021, to be presented by Messe Muenchen South Africa at the Sandton Convention Centre from 9 to 11 February.