Nigeria's drone future in gov't hands

May 09, 2016, 2:07 PM EDT
(Source: Adam Meek/flickr)
(Source: Adam Meek/flickr)

On Sunday Nigeria banned the use of all drones if they do not first get government licenses. Security was the main concern cited, both for the potential crash risks in mixed airspace with planes, and for possible surveillance and attack use by Boko Haram terrorists.

Drones were just emerging in Nigeria as a niche market, mostly adopted by filmmakers, start-ups, and enthusiastic hobbyists. E-commerce companies had also hoped that drones could avoid the delivery challenges that plague the country, like heavy traffic and a haphazard home address system.

Now, however, drones are unlikely to be an avenue of innovation for the Nigerian private sector. Given the Nigerian bureaucracy’s reputation for slow and corrupt dealing, in practice getting a drone license will likely prove to be too costly and inconvenient for many would-be users. (Kenya experienced similar disappointments in its private sector after the government there banned drones last January on security grounds.)

But while civilian use will henceforth be limited, the government has two other uses for drones that are to be scaled up. One is to monitor the country's oil industry. After successful tests, last June the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps said it had concluded plans to deploy about 500 drones and aircraft for proper surveillance of oil installations in the country. Afterwards, in September the Nigerian state oil company said it will deploy surveillance drones in key coastal areas to identify ships illicitly loading and hauling away smuggled oil; the authorities can then intercept them. Nigeria loses millions of dollars every day due to oil theft and sabotage, so drones could be a game-changer if they are coordinated with law enforcement to apprehend and deter criminals.

The other official use for drones is more controversial. In February Nigeria launched its first-ever military drone strike on a Boko Haram logistics base.  The country now joins the ranks of the U.S., U.K., Israel, Pakistan, and Iraq, who have all used armed drones in modern war. The use against Boko Haram military targets is justified, particularly since the area where the terrorist group operates is often hard to reach via land.

So Nigeria won’t be at the forefront of private drone innovation. But the country still stands to reap huge benefits from their use in government hands.