Pulse.ng logo

Pioneering Drones The future of drone technology is being shaped in Africa’s skies (Part 2)

Firstly, there is the question of safety protocols for cargo drones, which because of their carrying capacity would be eyed enviously by terrorists and smugglers.

  • Published: , Refreshed:
Denel Dynamic Seeker play

Denel Dynamic Seeker

The idea of the Flying Donkey Challenge received considerable support not only from universities and corporations invested in the continent - such as IBM Research Africa - but also from African innovators such as Nairobi’s tech incubator iHub, part of AfriLabs’ network of 36 technology innovation hubs in 18 African countries.

One offshoot is the rapid prototyping initiative called Gearbox, run by Professor Kamau Gachigi. Supported by the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, it provides designers with a one-stop workshop to build and test their prototypes, using 3D printing to create working models.

“If you are thinking of a drone port in an African community of 20 000 people in Malawi in 2020, with drones coming and going,” Ledgard explains, “they will need repairing, and you want to fabricate and repair using local 3D printing.”

“There is a very exciting interface between robotics, informal mechanics and repair in Africa that is almost unparalleled anywhere in the world, a very African talent of hacking things to work differently from what they were intended to do. Bring robotics into that and you will have the creation of spares and repairs at prices that make sense, from parts readily available in poorer communities,” all serving the continent’s new drone space.

The devastating al-Shabaab terror attacks in Kenya led to a temporary suspension of all drone activities putting the challenge on ice. However, in February 2017 government officials confirmed that a policy is shifting in Kenya once again.

Firstly, there is the question of safety protocols for cargo drones, which because of their carrying capacity would be eyed enviously by terrorists and smugglers.

But the huge advantage of cargo drones is that they will be designed to fly only in very narrow, safe, inflexibly geo-fenced corridors with a 500ft ceiling, from drone port to drone port, tracked at all times by GPS, with no deviation from the routes allowed by its operating program. That program will be self-piloted rather than remote-piloted, making it hard for any external hacker to intervene.

“What you’d want to see is the cargo drones registered with the civil aviation authorities: drones that are more or less autonomous, that would go from A to B to C to D without any piloting,” Ledgard says.

He suggests that additional safety protocols would include a back door into the operating system, whereby the civil aviation authority could, in an emergency, remotely force the UAV to land softly and safely. Switzerland is expected to pass a law this year allowing civilian operations for drones that exert no more than 66 joules of pressure when ‘ crash-landing’ – insufficient to kill or seriously harm a human.

Another African drone initiative, Red Line, involves the Universities of Rwanda and Nairobi and the world’s top aerial robotics research institutes, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Imperial College London. Red Line aims to get emergency drones with a 160km range into the air within the next three years.

They will be designed to carry small 10kg payloads of medical supplies such as blood plasma and medicines, vital spares or supplies for humanitarian relief, and even small crawling robots that could enter earthquake-damaged buildings to search for signs of life and check structural integrity.

Senior journalist and analyst Charles Onyango-Obbo speculated in The East African in March 2015 that cargo drones would likely first fly in countries such as Rwanda because of the progressive attitude of its administration, though Ledgard says that Ethiopia would be an ideal country because its mountains make as-the-crow-flies deliveries vital to humanitarian interventions.

Do you ever witness news or have a story that should be featured on Pulse Nigeria?
Submit your stories, pictures and videos to us now via WhatsApp: +2349055172167, Social Media @pulsenigeria247: #PulseEyewitness & DM or Email: eyewitness@pulse.ng. More information here.