The future of drone technology is being shaped in Africa’s skies

Today, South Africa’s Denel Dynamics have finalised development of the Seeker 400, Africa’s only home-grown hunter-killer drone.

As part of its shadow-war on what it calls the “arc of instability” across the Sahel, the United States has drone and aerial surveillance bases in Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and the Seychelles, all reporting to the US Africa Command in Djibouti. Apartheid South Africa used Seeker 1 surveillance drones in the early 1980s with a range of 200km, capable of filming in colour for 10 hours at 5 000ft.

Today, South Africa’s Denel Dynamics have finalised development of the Seeker 400, Africa’s only home-grown hunter-killer drone, with a maximum range of 750km, endurance of 16 hours, a ceiling of 18 000ft, and armed with two laser-guided air-to-ground missiles.

But drones have already crested African horizons in far more constructive roles, particularly in conservation for aerial tracking of endangered species, in journalism for birds-eye perspectives on hard-to-reach stories, in agriculture for monitoring crop quality, even in entertainment for delivering beer to cellphone-toting festival-goers. Soon, pilotless cargo drones bearing loads up to about 60kg could become a common sight in African skies – as soon as regulations catch up with African technological advances.

Properly known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), drones offer immense cost, logistics, personnel and time-saving benefits. Most important in the African context, they are capable of leapfrogging the continent’s infrastructural and environmental hurdles to deliver cargo with pinpoint accuracy to remote locations. That is the primary argument put forward by Jonathan Ledgard for the development of cargo drones.

Ledgard, director of the Flying Donkey Challenge, cites an African Development Bank finding that Africa’s infrastructure deficit grows by US$48-billion annually.

The World Bank explains that: “Africa’s road density is sparse when viewed against the vastness of the continent. As a result only one-third of Africans living in rural areas are within 2km of an all-season road, compared with two-thirds of the population in other developing regions.” To catch up, “The total required spending translates into 12% of Africa’s GDP”.

And yet, in information and communications technology (ICT), Africa is riding the wave: internet penetration reached 27,7% of the population by March 2017, while mobile broadband is expected to double its 2012 level to reach 160-million users by 2017, cellphone penetration is also projected to reach 79% of Africa’s population within only three years. It is this gap between ICT and infrastructure that Ledgard’s challenge aims to fill.

Conceived as a competition between designers to fly several 20kg payloads to designated stops around Mount Kenya within 24 hours, the Flying Donkey Challenge has three phases – all to be staged in Kenya.

The first phase offers qualifying competing teams US$2-million a year in research and development grants covering everything from the tech (collision-avoidance sensors, payload and energy efficiency, and anti-tampering devices) and the legals (legislation and certification, responsibility and liability, licensing and taxes), to the logistics (ground handling, air operations, and warehousing) and design (simulations, transportation hubs, and servicing). The second phase would grant US$1-million a year for the finalists, and the final phase US$2-million a year for the winners.

A veteran East Africa correspondent for The Economist, Ledgard became frustrated writing about Africa’s problems instead of about how to fix them. The penny dropped for him during an interview with an al-Shabab commander in a remote area “which was more collapsed than any community can be, but this guy had two working mobile phones, operating off two separate networks”. So he left The Economist and became an evangelist for how smart tech can bridge the infrastructure gap by telescoping time and space.

“The thing that gets me out of bed every day is that in Africa, everything is still in play, nothing is finally decided. The decisions that young Africans take over the next 10 years on design, technology, architecture, politics and economics, will determine the fate of Africa for the next century, so we are at a critical and interesting time,” Ledgard says.

“Tech is not a solution in itself, but it’s a pretty easy win for poorer countries, particularly regarding robotics. That sounds counter-intuitive: why go for automation in economies with pervasively high rates of youth unemployment? But you can buy economic efficiency you are not otherwise able to afford, and this is particularly true of flying robotics.”


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