Unravelling the drone blueprint in Africa

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Unravelling the drone blueprint in Africa
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A lot of drones being used in Africa today are primarily to deliver medical aid to the remotest of regions. Speakers at the recent cargo drone virtual summit talk about how regular communication, collaboration and involvement of locals could […]


Unravelling the drone blueprint in Africa
A lot of drones being used in Africa today are primarily to deliver medical aid to the remotest of regions.

Speakers at the recent cargo drone virtual summit talk about how regular communication, collaboration and involvement of locals could boost the drone ecosystem in the continent.

Even as the world is trying to understand the true potential of drones beyond luxurious uses, the African continent is driving the way forward. From already using them to deliver healthcare facilities to the remotest locations, they are now being looked at to deliver cargo. Interestingly, the process has been accelerated because of the Covid-19 pandemic looming large over everybody. In a three-day cargo drone virtual summit organised by STAT Media Group, various industry experts and stakeholders discussed how using drones in Africa can not only deliver small healthcare deliveries but has the ability to expand into a large scale operation which can cater to a larger population. While there are many experiments being conducted in drone technology, the constantly evolving nature of the technology has led to every stakeholder talking about how collaboration is the best way forward. It is especially important to work closely with the government authorities and the regulatory bodies to help carry out cargo drones, not only in the African countries but around the world.

Larger drones for bigger payload
Francisco Serra-Martins, co-founder and chief executive officer, Dove Air, like many, is already geared up for the future with drones that can fly up to 800 kilometres with at least 11kg and can also carry 20kg while flying 12 hours per day. Interestingly, the drone can not only parachute but can also carry multiple payloads while doing multiple deliveries in one journey. “The reason why we selected an asset, which uses fuel, is because we found that the energy, weight ratio, or fuel is several times better than batteries. If you look at it from a lifetime perspective for carbon emissions, fuel is better, because the battery systems are powered off coal burning systems,” explains Francisco.

The non-profit drone aid delivery organisation is constantly tweaking their drone engine and fuselage to increase its payload and volume capacity. The current fuselage of 23 litres has been doubled, while also adding under-wing containers to increase the cargo capacity to 60 litres. “Currently, we integrate two prequalified vaccine containers but I think by November, hopefully, we'll have the rollout of the passive and eventually active cooling, so using an onboard generator to cool the cold chain supply,” he adds, while mentioning that they have also started an operator program to create jobs for locals. While they are primarily flying in the northern province of Mozambique, they are soon going to rollout in Sierra Leone and seven other countries, out of which three are in Africa.

It is no surprise then, when Ansgar Kadura, co-founder and chief services officer, Wingcopter, which has been active in Malawi and other African countries, says it is about working together with the local people and also because project management in Africa can be difficult. “For us, it's not about bringing fancy technology but it's about working together with the people on ground and actually listening to their needs,” he adds. While they have already collaborated with Astral Aerial Solutions, they collaborated with UPS because they believed that the logistics company is not only good for parcel deliveries but also for humanitarian deliveries and health commodities. Flying drones is definitely picking up but also beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights are picking up steam and Wingcopter has done quite a few of them.

“We did our first BVLOS flight in Tanzania, where we flew over 60 km. We want to cooperate with the civil aviation authority, and all the other stakeholders to be able to carry out the operations and in our experience, most African countries have been very progressive,” adds Kadura. While a lot of drone operators are making the best technology, they are simultaneously also focusing on creating cost-effective sustainable solutions, Wingcopter not only has a patented rotor tilt rotor mechanism but Kadura believes in creating sustainable solutions. “We send batteries to two countries and once they are done, we have a good partner to ship them back. We don't want to just send drones and create rubbish,” he informs.

Shaping up for cargo drones
The drone ecosystem is growing every single day and just like that there are bigger and better drones being built to cater to the future, while carrying cargo payloads. Phoenix Wings’ Manta Ray VTOL aircraft is one such drone that can carry 10 kilos. Marc Schwarzbach, CTO and Managing Director, says, “The fully electric aircraft combines the benefits of fixed wing and copter platforms in having long range and also the ease of use in landing and taking off vertically, and depending on the version can carry a payload of 10kg and go up to 180 km.” He adds that they also provide software training systems which give the user the opportunity to train the operators or the pilots in an office environment with 3D visualization and simulation of multiple aircrafts. This also means that it does not require a trained pilot but anybody who has been introduced into the system, making it easier to roll out operations in the field, which works perfectly well as Phoenix Wings primarily focuses on medical delivery.

Singular Aircraft takes it a step further and build large amphibious unmanned aircraft. Since drone regulations do not currently cater to the weight category, they have registered under the military regulation NATO STANAG 4671. “We are able to transport 1580 kilograms to 265 nautical miles, or with C-five, the 470 kilograms to 1940 nautical miles. We are not going to win a beauty competition. We already know that because the competition we want to win is the operational side competition right for cargo transport with a low-cost aircraft,” says owner, Luis Carrillo.

"We already know that because the competition we want to win is the operational side competition right for cargo transport with a low-cost aircraft”

Luis Carrillo, Singular Aircraft

While most drones are multipurpose and can be used for other applications, Dronamics has designed a drone called the Black Swan specifically for cargo. “It can deliver up to 350 kilos and can fly at 200 km per hour. Our motto is also to deliver the very same day for less than two dollars,” says Svilen Rangelov, co-founder and CEO. He adds that they are also working on creating a vehicle which is a cross section between aerial and ground transport while obviously focusing on package delivery. “The package delivery is not in the last mile sense but rather in the middle mile to essentially create a flying delivery van. Our payload is 350 kilos and 3.5 cubic metres, which means that we can not only fit a palette but also multiple voluminous packages as far as 2500 km,” Rangelov adds, while saying that they hope to be operational in 2021, as they have already received MOUs from several major airports and interests of partnerships at the local level in Africa.

A lot of drones being used in Africa today are primarily to deliver medical aid to the remotest of regions, as it takes a lot of time for traditional means to reach them in time. This also raises the need for a large cargo drone that is able to deliver a large amount of supplies in one journey, which in turn also makes it cost effective for the very same drone operators. However, the regulations allow drones to carry payloads that are below the 25-kilo range. With the future looking bright for cargo drones, there are many drone makers that are not only creating bigger drones but are increasing the capacity to include a larger payload.

Barry Koperberg of Wings for Aid is building special box carriers that would be able to carry emergency relief boxes of 20kg. The founder and general manager says, “We have designed a drone that can carry eight boxes with an effective payload of 160 kg, which is being tested right now and will be launched in 2021. We have already run the tests with the United Nations, Red Cross and Dominican Republic.” Koperberg adds that they will probably start from Kenya and South Africa realistically and Rwanda later as it is a little populated for their tastes as the drones are quite big. However, he says that on the regulatory front, there is need for support and pleads to the civil aviation authorities go for specific appreciation and specific approval of operations.

Better collaboration for ideal regulations
While the industry is growing, the regulatory bodies and governments are also feeling the pressure, as the constant evolution means that the rules that were made a few years ago may not really work now or for the future. Sam Twala, co-founder and MD, Ntsu Aviation Solutions and Chairman of SAFU, says the operations which include cargo deliveries or general deliveries may work for sparsely populated regions but are complicated otherwise. “If you look at South Africa, it will be a little complicated, and that complexity requires the industry to work together with civil aviation authorities also to make sure that we achieve and get to a position where regulations enable such operations, whether this would be in an integrated way or the accommodated manner,” he says, while adding it is important to talk about building a simple traffic management system.

Sanjeev Gadhia, founder and CEO, Astral Aerial Solutions, echoing Twala’s sentiment says that there is a need for everyone to work together and emphasizes on the need for observation, cooperation and collaboration. He elaborates, “While I am happy with the regulations, the only thing I’m not satisfied with is the time it is taking or the regulations to convert a project into a phase of implementation. I really think that the regulators are disconnected with the operators. We need to be talking more to the regulators. I really feel that with better communication between the operators and the regulators, we will actually be able to achieve a fast track process to make sure that our vision turns into reality. So, it's not only collaboration between manufacturers, but it's also collaboration with the regulators”

"I really feel that with better communication between the operators and the regulators, we will actually be able to achieve a fast track process to make sure that our vision turns into reality"

Sanjeev Gadhia, Astral Aerial Solutions

Irvine Phenyane, Chairperson, Drone Council South Africa, affirmatively emphasizes that there is a need for everybody to work together in the industry as there is a natural tension between innovations and regulations. He says, “It is necessary for regulators that are thinking futuristic and we should be looking at sandbox experiments where you say, let's get ideas, get them on the ground, apply them, and then work backwards. We have taken a big pitch approach that in Africa to get this right, we need to fix a country strategy, where everyone is in a room including the regulators to integrate the industry and value chain players while looking at our latest industrial development capacity.” He adds that they have also adopted an ecosystem approach that starts from pre-application to in-business incubation, a licensed operator, drone pilots and manufacturer and put all of them together.

Using drones may be easy but having the right regulations is also important and one of the major concerns of regulators is the safety and security of the people of the country and private property. Lobang Thabantso, acting senior manager, airworthiness, South African Civil Aviation Authority, says that the regulatory body will ensure the development of the industry by giving them all the support they need. “We will give the participants the platform to interpret how they want to operate and we will guide them with it,” he says, adding that unfortunately, they can't give the operators everything because of the limitations and the laws that they have to operate within and are also bound by it. However, to make things easier, he says, “it is important for the drone operators to know the rules and see if they will be able to use the drones they have within it.”

Tautvydas Juskauskas, drone specialist, UNICEF Supply Division/ ISG UAS coordinator, says that with all the operations that are currently being carried out, it is known that drones can deliver correctly; however, he says the focus now needs to shift. “We need to strategically think how drones can be used as a part of the existing modes of transport and what competitive advantage do they bring to the table,” he says. Juskauskas adds that currently at UNICEF with its partners, they are developing resources and tools to help integrate them into supply chains, where it fits to look at it from the impact, benefits and cost savings perspective.

Ackson Kondwani Mwenda, Founder, African Drone Voice, thinks while drone deliveries are being done in the African continent, it is important for the operators to look at how they can succeed from the business perspective. It could simply be done by extending the deliveries to regular requirements than keeping it only for medical aid. He also supports collaborations because that could help the progress of Africa. “International drone companies should also look at establishing manufacturing plants, so that even from the technical side, and the competency in the local people in Africa, it can grow. And that sort of collaboration, we encourage them to adapt the technology better to the environment,” he adds.

However, Mwenda says that is not possible without harmonisation of drone laws, while also adding that the regulators have to look at pricing of drone licences for operators looking to get them, as they are very expensive right now. Last but not the least, the need for better training for the locals to operate the drones in the best possible way.