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6 Lessons I Learnt Whiles Developing Drone Regulations

In most regulated industries, if not all, the pace of innovation usually outstrips the promulgation of regulations. The aviation industry, with respect to drones, is no exception. Seemingly overnight, we saw these ubiquitous drones introducing new concepts into our daily lives. All of a sudden, the skies became accessible not only to large corporations and multi-millionaires but also to the run of the mill aviation enthusiast and to any entrepreneur. From the entertainment industry to the medical delivery supply chain, from the agricultural sector to the geomatic research fields, all have been impacted by this revolutionary technology. Aviation regulators the world over were caught in a game of catch-up trying to reign in and see to the controlled explosion of this technology.

More so, these drones are meant to share the same airspace that the more traditional form of aviation already occupies. It was a ticking time bomb and there was no time to spare. This endeavour was a novel experience for almost all the current crop of regulators. Hitherto, regulations for aviation predated most of us and we were only involved with its tinkering to ensure optimisation. In this situation however, we had to basically begin from scratch.

The development of regulations from scratch offers some great learning opportunities. As part of the team, spearheading the development of my country’s regulations on drones, there were six important lessons I came to appreciate:

The organisation or leadership that encourages innovation thrives – In his book, “Leaders Eat Last.” Simon Sinek quotes Captain Marquet as saying:

Those at the top have all the authority and none of the information. Those at the bottom have all the information and none of the authority. Not until those without information relinquish their control can an organisation run better, smoother and faster and reach its maximum potential.

After conferring with a few of my colleagues to discuss the then emerging drone industry in my country, a memo was prepared to Management to allocate resources for the development of regulation and procedures to aid the smooth integration of the industry into our aviation system. It is a feather in the cap of Management that without hesitation, they granted the request and today, my country is at the forefront of encouraging the orderly integration of drones in Africa.

You are not the source of all knowledge – In our folklore, there’s this character, Kweku Ananse, who after collecting all the world’s wisdom in a gourd decided to hide it up the tallest tree in his village. As he was struggling to climb up the tree with the gourd resting on his belly a little boy from below advised him that it will be easier to climb the tree with the gourd at his back instead. Ananse, realising that he had failed in his quest to acquire all the wisdom of the world, threw down the gourd in exasperation and frustration. What a wonderful lesson in humility!

In tackling the project, we made sure to have representatives from relevant key areas of aviation. Though I was an expert in my sector there were times when questions or suggestions from other sector-experts made me realise my thought premise was wrong. If you let pride and ego overrule your better sense of judgement in such instances either your team disintegrates, or you end up with an inferior result.

Your work is never really completed – The landscape is constantly evolving and as a regulator, you are required to stay current with all the latest developments in order to tinker with your regulations and procedures appropriately. You never stop learning.

Moreover, you may realise that some of the scenarios your team developed in the meeting room do not play out well on the field. Do you try to force the square peg into the round hole, nevertheless? You will soon come to the realisation that the drawing board cannot be left to collect dust if you want to maintain or improve your initial results when you first rolled out your “finished” regulations and procedures.

Threats do not always work – In the traditional form of aviation, the respect for the rules is indoctrinated into you before you ever work independently. Moreover, most traditional aviation activities are conglomerated around airports and or can be seen on radar. This makes it easier to supervise and enforce.

The drone industry is, however, spread all over the place and may not be necessarily detectable on radar. Any Tom, Dick or Harry, can lay his hands on a drone and start to immediately fly, totally oblivious to the possible effects of his activity. This poses a challenge when it comes to enforcing the regulations that have been developed. If you place emphasis on the sanctions and penalties involved in breaking the rules, the operators of drones will go underground and operate on the blindside of the CAA.

The only feasible way to ensure compliance to the regulations is to educate the operators and the general public on the repercussions of wilful disobedience to the regulations in terms of safety to other aircraft and to people and property on ground.

The threat of punishment has its place, but in this case, it should be downplayed in favour of education.

You need to share the glory – it is said in business and entrepreneurial circles that owning 20 percent of something is better than owning 100 percent of nothing. Even though the CAA is the developer of the drone regulations, it needs to involve other relevant governmental agencies to help it achieve its aim.

If we want to succeed, we cannot afford to work in silos in an attempt to control our turf.

Drone operators are not the enemy – The regulation of the drone industry is not an “us against them” battle. Regulators and industry players are two sides of the same coin or as it is said over here, the two wings of a bird.

It was heartening to note that in the early days of development of the regulations, drone operators offered constructive suggestions as to how best to tackle some issues. It was evident that even without the CAA, some operators had in their own individual ways, tried to ensure the safety of their operations.

I have, inevitably, made a few friends from the “other side” during this incredible endeavour.

Bonus: Nothing good comes easy – If you want the best or to be counted among the best, then you must be willing to work for it. Our regulations have proven to be resilient after passing through the test of time:

Whatever you want to do, if you want to be great at it, you have to love it and be able to make sacrifices for it.

(Maya Angelou)

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