The busybody in charge of public relations at the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) — one Sam Adurogboye — spoke to the press a couple of days ago about drones
In recent times, RPA/UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) are being deployed for commercial and recreational purposes in the country without adequate security clearance.
“Therefore with the preponderance of these operations, particularly in a non-segregated airspace, there has to be proactive safety guidelines.
“The development of the use of RPA nationwide has emerged with somewhat predictable safety concerns and security threats
And then this
Therefore, no government agency, organisation or an individual will launch an RPA/UAV in the Nigerian airspace for any purpose whatsoever without obtaining requisite permit from the NCAA and ONSA.
“The NCAA wishes to reiterate that all applicants and holders of permits to operate RPA/Drones must strictly be guided by safety guidelines.
“In addition, operators must ensure strict compliance with the conditions stipulated in their permits and the requirements of the Nig. CARs
Understanding what is going on here reveals an important insight into why Nigeria is the way it is. It is another variation of the MOPICON mentality.
Drone State of Play
Commercial drones used by ordinary individuals are still a fairly new technology. That is, like all new technologies, they are currently in the experimentation phase. No one really knows what they will be used for 10 years from now. In the process of experimenting, someone will stumble on a use case that solves a problem and investors will pile in to fund the idea.
For now, all kinds of people are using drones from wedding photographers to oil rigs using it in place of human beings to minimise risk. There is even aDrone Racing League (some investors have put in $8m so far). Some of thespectacular footage in Avengers: Age of Ultron were shot with a drone. Of course, Amazon has been testing drone deliveries for packages. There are drones that can follow you as you ride your bicycle and record the whole journey. Drones are also helping to understand the insides of volcanoes where humans cannot go. An artist in New York used a drone to graffiti a billboard last year. The use of drones for agricultural purposes is also very well known — if I was to place a bet, I would say agriculture is where the best use of drones will emerge. But it’s still to early to call. Even Rwanda is experimenting with the world’s first drone airport.
The story of drones has only just begun so if anyone tells you they know what they are doing about regulating it, it’s a good way to know they don’t know what they are talking about. In 2010, America’s Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) projected that by 2020, there would be 15,000 drones in America. This year, 3 million drones will be sold in America. To be fair to the FAA, it constantly updates its predictions when the facts change, so now it reckons there will be 7 million drones by 2020.
Most drones these days cant fly for more than 20 minutes before they have to land for a recharge and there is a limit to how high they can fly. Again, this is another pointer to the fact that the technology is still evolving.
But the same framework that allows hobbyists and thrill seekers to experiment with ideas around drones is the same framework that gives criminals ideas about how to improve their criminality. So for example, drones have been used to smuggle drugs into prisons in America. Somedrunk guy lost control of his drone last year and it landed on the lawn of the White House. There are also some jobless and perverted people out there who use drones to spy on their neighbours. And even though any reasonable person knows that its not a good idea, some people still fly their drones near airports resulting in several near misses with airplanes.
So what to do? There are a lot of good uses for drones and the prices are coming down everyday meaning more and more people are going to be buying them. At the same time, we really don’t want drones flying close to airplanes and getting sucked into an engine or something. How a country decides to respond to this question tells you a lot about who they are.
Look back at the statement by the NCAA busybody — you cannot use drones for any purpose whatsoever until NCAA and NSA say its ok for you to use it. You will now need a licence to fly a drone and whatever experiment you want to carry out with drones will have to be filtered through the NCAA and NSA, who cannot possibly know what they are doing.
There is even something more interesting about the whole thing.
According to the statement, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is yet to publish Standards and Recommended Practices, SARPs, as far as certification and operation of civil use of RPA is concerned.
The statement said the NCAA had therefore put in place Regulations/Advisory Circular to guide the certification and operations of civil RPA in the Nigerian airspace.
Is that not amazing? The ICAO is still studying the situation and has not yet published standards. But Nigeria’s NCAA decided to be ‘proactive’ by banning them. How many times do you hear that a foreign regulatory body is being ‘slow’ and as a result Nigeria decided to move ‘quickly’ for the benefit of Nigerians?
The game is the licence and someone has just found a way to print money. Some enterprising hustler somewhere is already doing a spellcheck on his proposal to the NCAA and NSA for a quota to import ‘approved drones’ into the Nigerian market. The only way this licence can be useful to the bureaucrats is for them to make it as hard and as unpredictable to obtain as possible. If they just set the rules for you to apply, that will defeat the purpose because anyone who qualifies will then get it. Instead, what they will do is to ensure that you never know whether you qualify for this licence or not. What do you want to use it for? Taking photographs at a wedding? That will depend on when you apply and who handles your application.
Once that kind of uncertainty and difficulty has been created, it becomes relatively easy to offer a path to bypass the mess by simply paying money. Paying money is the only thing that becomes certain and as a result that’s what most people will do. Eventually, they wont bother checking your documents again once you have paid them. Logically, this helps to defeat the purpose because a criminal will easily obtain a licence as long as they pay.
This behaviour helps to explain a lot that is wrong with Nigeria today. The default culture is to stifle innovation and kill experimentation. Nigeria is not a place where much innovation goes on — palm oil is still being processed as it has been for centuries and people still pick their beans before cooking it, a complete waste of anyone’s time in 2016.
Further, because things hardly change or only change very slowly, bad behaviour gets entrenched and people get used to it. The vicious cycle is then complete because even when something is obviously detrimental, it is practically impossible to change. Most Nigerians know that the Land Use Act is a mess and needs to change. But can it be changed? This is why you can leave Nigeria for 10 or 20 years and return to meet a lot of problems exactly as you left them. It is very costly to change things or experiment with new ideas. To paraphrase one of my favourite Professors — in a country like Nigeria there are only 2 paths; conformity or brigandage.
Today’s manifestation of this nasty and stifling culture is in drones but it is by no means unique to that. What do you think would have happened if someone had shown the Nigerian authorities the future of mobile phones in Nigeria? Consider David Mark’s infamous statement about telephones and poor people as you ponder that hypothetical.
Europe used to be this way too. Experimentation wasn’t allowed and people were stifled in all kinds of ways. And then the Age of Enlightenment began to change people’s attitudes in all sorts of ways. It became ok to try out new things.
An American economist, Joel Mokyr, described it thus
intellectual innovation could only occur in the kind of tolerant societies in which sometimes outrageous ideas proposed by highly eccentric men would not entail a violent response against ‘heresy’ and ‘apostasy’
No one is saying drones shouldn’t be regulated in some form. But the question of how you do it determines the kind of society you are. The NCAA could have listed a number of places where drones should not be flown — airports being an obvious one and maybe military installations. Then watch how things go and update their rules accordingly. Just last month, the FAA relaxed the rules on commercial drones in America, doubling the height they can fly and making it easier to get a licence online. The fundamental issue here is that the FAA wants that critical experimentation to be able to continue. Once America stops toying with new ideas, you can kiss goodbye to that Republic as a superpower.
But to say that no one at all should fly a drone for any reason whatsoever until you have given them permission to do so reveals this as the latest iteration of bastardry that has plagued Nigeria for generations. This guarantees that Nigeria will lag behind other countries in drone experimentation and usage. It will also mean that those who are lucky to benefit from the status quo will fight tooth and nail to prevent any change even when it is obviously a hindrance to progress.
I always say that a lot of the things ailing Nigeria are sicknesses of the head. They come from the way people think and how we continue to organise ourselves as a people. I continue to pray for an enlightenment for Nigeria so that these shackles can be broken and the potential of a country with 180 million people can begin to be realised.