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Are drones threat to airport operations?

Gone are the days when the operation of drones was without regulation. It became an all-comer affair until it began to pose a threat to…

Gone are the days when the operation of drones was without regulation. It became an all-comer affair until it began to pose a threat to safe flights. 

 Drone, otherwise known as remotely piloted aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicle (UPA/UAV), was gradually taking over the country’s airspace and posing threat of incursion and risk to flight operations by those who probably deployed the facility to catch fun.

To preserve the integrity of the country’s airspace, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), taking a cue from the global standard and recommended practice by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), promptly came up with a regulation on drone operation.

In October last year, the guidelines for the operation of RPAs/UAV finally came into effect.

The guidelines, issued by the NCAA, were designed to stop the unauthorised operation of drones in the country.

It would be recalled that the regulations were developed in 2017, with the first certification issued to Oando Plc.

But the regulations actually took effect from October 19, 2020, implying that the NCAA could shut down any drone flying within the Nigerian airspace without authorisation and the required certification.

According to the NCAA, flight by remotely piloted aircraft in controlled airspace and over populated areas presents problems to the Authority in terms of ensuring the safety of other users of airspace and persons on the ground.

Under the regulations, the Authority may issue a remote pilot licence to the applicant if he or she is 16 years of age and has passed the various tests stipulated.

Section 21.3.1 of the regulations provides that, “Every person lawfully entitled to the possession of a RPA in Nigeria should register with a gross mass of 250grm and more stipulated by the Authority and hold a valid certificate of registration.”

It was learnt that the NCAA, on October 9, also informed all operators of drones of the new regulations.

But over the years, stakeholders in the aviation sector have come to realise that the benefits of drones have been watered down overtime. Drones, analysts say, have gone beyond being deployed for reconnaissance activities. 

The second Drone Technology Conference and Exhibition held at the NIGAV Centre inside the Murtala Muhammad International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, was a platform to assess the benefits of drone and the much that can be achieved, especially in the aviation industry through drones.

Are drones rendering airports irrelevant? Are they only useful in monitoring and investigation? Are they only for fun? These were posers stakeholders tried to unravel for the three days the conference lasted.

The president of the Nigerian Unmanned Systems Association (NUSA), Air Vice-Marshal Olufemi Idowu (retd), highlighted nine benefits of drones, which he noted had become a multi-billion dollar industry globally. 

According to him, making use of all the prospects available will definitely put Nigeria on the map of drone users on the continent. “So far, other African countries are ahead of us.

“The many prospects help highlight the apparent challenges in the use of drones in Nigeria. We are still lagging behind as we are not taking full advantage of all the prospects available to us with this technology,” he said.

He said drones could help with mail delivery; food and medical supplies delivery after natural disasters. Drones can also greatly help the local population after natural disasters.

Other prospects are: Drones can help with dangerous tasks “that could be potentially dangerous for human workers. “For instance, sending people to unchartered territory, which could result in injuries or even fatalities, drones could be used since they can be controlled from many miles away, thus making certain jobs safer for humans since humans no longer have to put themselves in dangerous situations in many cases.

He added, “Drones can help to explore areas without having to be present in person. In general, drones can be quite useful to explore certain areas without actually having to be present in person.

“Drones can be used in agriculture. Another upside of drones is that they can also be used for agricultural purposes. In fact, drones can greatly improve the efficiency of processes in agriculture since far less manual work would be needed if they are used on a large scale. For instance, drones could help with the irrigation of fields.

Moreover, they could also be used for the application of pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.

“The more work that can be done by drones, the less work has to be done by farmers. Therefore, drones could also increase yields, as well as the overall quality of life of farmers in many countries all over the world.

‘Drones can be used in construction and mining’

For the managing director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Captain Rabiu Hamisu Yadudu, there is a huge potential in the development of the UAV as transport for both passenger and cargo, which may futuristically reduce the cost of the required infrastructure. He added that this does not pose any threat to airports.

He said there would always be the need to carry huge cargo and mass transport of people over a great distance at speed.

Yadudu, who was represented by the General Manager, Environment, Mr Nehemiah Auta, presented a paper titled: “The future of commercial cargo drones from the airport operators’ perspective.”

According to the FAAN helmsman, unmanned aerial vehicles have come to be a critical part of everyday life simply because of its limitless potentials to demystify hitherto logistical challenges encountered in the distribution of goods from one place to another. He also said that unmanned cargo carrying aircraft, although a possibility, was still far.

“In the realm of airport development for drones as vehicles for both passengers and cargos, the potential is currently being experimented as a solution to urban mobility. 

“This is the concept of drone ports in the city. This solution will provide vital landing ports for air taxis or drone-carrying passengers and cargo for short haul travel. A recent development by Urban-Air Port Limited called Airport One for such airports for vertical landing aircraft was launched in Coventry, United Kingdom this year, demonstrating the potential and possibility of miniature city airports.

“The success of this launch has introduced a completely new dimension to cargo, passengers and drone relationships, which bring the perspective of the airport in this case to realisation. In the future, airport operators would be looking at this potential, which would reduce the cost of the required infrastructure for huge airports but would have a multiplicity of airports in the city.

“While this is being envisaged, unmanned cargo carrying aircraft is a possibility but still far. It is, therefore, my conclusion that with technology, the sky is just the beginning. 

“The airport is a very important development facility and enabler of the economy. The future of airports is assured in all cases, no matter which way the aircraft future develops. There will always be the need to carry huge cargo and mass transport of people over a great distance at speed. And the airport will always be the takeoff and the landing place for the aircraft. It will only require adaptation to new operational guidelines, technologies and customer services requirements.

Yadudu observed that most aircraft manufacturers and airlines were creating an UAS unit to begin to look at the future relevance of their operation vis-a-vis drone technology and the autonomous emphasising that the airports’ position is not different in this regard.

“Although the airports await the regulatory directions and potential integration from world aviation bodies like the ICAO, ACI and IATA, FAA etc, the possibility of autonomous cargo operations is real and already here. DHL and other logistics support services are keenly working on the potential of delivery with drones.

“The delivery drones market is poised to grow at a CAGR of 12 per cent by 2027. Factors driving delivery drones market are increased demand for drone delivery services. The main aircraft cargo market will not change significantly because autonomous only means eliminating the pilot, and that will not affect the cargo market. It will only improve safety,” he said.

The Accident Investigation Bureau Nigeria (AIB-N) is one aviation agency which has taken advantage of the technology inherent in drone deployment by acquiring two hi-tech drones to assist in the investigation of aircraft accidents or serious incidents.

The commissioner of the AIB-N, Akin Olateru, an engineer, called for the simplification of the approval processes for drone approval, stressing that the world has moved and drones open huge opportunities for the betterment of the country.

He said the approval coming from the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) was too busy to take individual drone approval requests.

He said that once the bottlenecks in seeking approval were removed, it could be used in areas that aid humanity, including agriculture, medicals, traffic management, security and a lot of other areas.

He said, “We need to simplify all the processes of drone approval. It is too cumbersome, and the NSA is a bust office and cannot be taking individual requests for drone technology. If we want to move forward, we need to find a way to simplify the process.”

On the benefits he said, “One can monitor traffic on the Third Mainland everyday between 6:30am and 8:30am through the deployment of drones. Are we investing in drones enough to monitor our pipelines? Are drones monitoring our perimeter fencing at our airports?”

On its part, the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), Zaria, stated that it focused on research and development to help create jobs in this sphere.

The acting head of Ground Department, NCAT and the Technical Coordinator, Association of African Training Organisation (AATO), Dr Yakubu Ibrahim, said almost 90 per cent of drone users could fly and monitor, but not many are looking at R&D.

He said, “Almost 90 per cent of participants are looking at how to fly a drone and do monitoring and other applications, but none is looking at research and development. How do you create jobs? You can create jobs by bringing people who do programming. We can look at people who design drones. And as a training institution,  we can come up with a unit that can take care of those units. By doing so, one cannot only fly drones but also go into the technology itself.”

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