SATURDAY, 8 AUGUST 2020
The aviation technology scene in Africa is booming. The continent is rapidly adopting digital technology as it seeks to leapfrog the cumbersome and crude development pathway stomped out by industrialised nations . Rwanda is particularly emblematic of this explosive growth; the country has recovered from the tragedy of the 1994 genocide to become one of the fastest growing technology hubs of Africa. In 2018, it placed a record 29th on the World Bank’s global ‘ease of doing business’ index. This was achieved through government reforms which have removed barriers to entrepreneurship such as streamlining new business registrations, partial tax exemptions for startups and improving access to essential utilities.
In February 2020, Rwanda hosted the Lake Kivu Challenge, a flying competition and forum for drone companies to demonstrate the capability for airborne deliveries and surveying in Africa. Embracing change and new technologies, particularly in unmanned aviation, is seen as vital to national development in Rwanda; in 2019 it was the first country globally to register more autonomous flights than manned flights. One of the main reasons why Rwanda is embracing drone technology is that it is not limited by the often inadequate ground transport infrastructure in rural areas. Furthermore, the unmanned aviation community presents an emerging and profitable career opportunity for many of Rwanda's young engineers. This effect is wide reaching, emerging drone applications create demand for service providers such as agricultural surveyors and a wider economy of flight trainers, engineers and drone operators.
Commercial drones are usually one of two main types: fixed wing and multirotor. Fixed wing models fly in a similar manner to an airplane where the flow of air over their wing is used to generate lift. They can travel long distances at high speed and stay airborne for long periods of time. For example, an Airbus solar powered drone operating at high altitude set the record for the longest unmanned flight of 26 days in 2018. Multirotor drones are typically smaller and use rotor blades to generate vertical lift like helicopters. They are better suited for some applications such as situations in which the drone is required to hover in place, which means they can manoeuvre into tight locations or remain still during photography. However, the need to constantly spend energy fighting against gravity makes them less efficient; a typical entry level multirotor drone can only stay airborne for around 30 minutes. The desire to extend flight times has led some companies to explore alternatives to traditional metal-ion batteries. One competitor at the Lake Kivu Challenge, Doosan Mobility, demonstrated the first commercial hydrogen fuel cell powered drone which was capable of over 2 and a half hours’ flight time. The distinction between these two types of drone is becoming blurred by the novel capability of some new drones to operate in vertical take-off mode and then transition to a fixed wing flying mode.
The Lake Kivu Challenge involved 3 different categories; Emergency Delivery, Sample Pick-Up, and Find and Assess. The flight plan of the emergency delivery and sample pick up competitions were both designed to relate to the transport of medical products in remote areas. Medical drone deliveries are useful both for the time sensitive delivery of emergency life-saving products such as blood or snake-bite antidotes as well as more routine medical items which face supply chain issues such as vaccine delivery and the transport of diagnostic samples to a central laboratory.
Flying Competition 1: Emergency Delivery
In the Emergency Delivery competition, teams had to deliver an emergency package to Bugarura Island, then return to the droneport and safely land on a single charge. The start-up Wingcopter won the competition completing the 20km delivery portion of the flight in 12 minutes. The Wingcopter uses a tilt-rotor mechanism which allows the drone to nimbly take off and hover vertically before switching to a high-velocity fixed wing flight mode.
Timely delivery of medical supplies can be very difficult in rural Africa due to the combination of poor infrastructure and the high frequency of natural disasters such as floods. The Emergency Delivery competition involved the rapid transport of a 1L saline package to a remote island in Lake Kivu, with the fastest delivery time winning. This capability has been shown to have a direct life-saving benefit in uses such as blood transfusion for postpartum bleeding. Research by the World Bank found that if blood is delivered after 2 hours there was a fatality rate of 90% whereas for an on-time delivery the fatality rate was only 5%. The company Zipline has been a major innovator in the field of medical delivery and has operations on-going in Africa and in North America. The company is now partnering with healthcare operators to go beyond emergency operations and towards regular commercial operations serving health facilities and, ultimately, patients’ homes.
Flying Competition 2: Sample Pick-Up
The sample pick-up competition required competitors to fly to Bugarura Island and pick up as many 250g packages of liquid-filled ampoules as possible and then return to the drone port on a single charge. The prize was awarded to the drone able to collect the highest payload with extra points for the ease of interacting with the cargo. The Phoenix Wings’ Manta Ray won by collecting the highest payload of all teams, succeeding despite a sudden rain shower at the drone port whilst landing. The Manta Ray is able to transport 10kg of cargo distances of up to 120km. The cargo box shown in the photograph is housed inside the body of the drone for efficient aerodynamic flight.
One of the major difficulties with large scale vaccination campaigns in Africa lies in the logistics of delivering the vaccine doses whilst maintaining the “cold chain”. From the time they are manufactured, vaccines have to be stored at strictly controlled temperatures (commonly 2-8°C) to preserve their potency. In the current supply chain, there is a high wastage rate of vaccines due to power outages, long transport times and time-consuming handovers. By shortening the transport time and complexity, drone delivery can remove these sources of spoilage, reducing vaccine waste. Utilising drones in the delivery of vaccines opens doors for increasing the overall efficiency of delivery networks in ways that other forms of transport cannot. For example, drones allow vaccines to be delivered exactly based on a facility's need at a certain point in time due to the fast delivery speeds and lower cost of transport. In addition, distributing directly to health clinics from a central location offers a higher level of quality control, guaranteeing the effectiveness of delivered vaccines.
Flying Competition 3: Find and Assess
In the final competition, Find and Assess, drones were required to locate markers on both water and land through aerial surveying. The information gathered through these surveys is particularly useful after natural disasters where drones can quickly search for survivors or survey damage to buildings to enable critical decision making. The competition was won by Ho Jung Solutions Remo-M drone who located the most markers in the time available. The Reno-M can be launched by hand which is very useful in remote areas with limited infrastructure.
To ensure that the ground is fertile for mainstream adoption of drone technology, it is crucial to achieve cooperation between the different parties in the drone ecosystem. Thus, the forum accompanying the flying competitions aimed to bring together all of the stakeholders in this emerging industry including drone manufacturers, commercial operators, investors, politicians, and regulators, even the local police brought some of their concerns to the discussion. Safety and security are significant concerns as drone applications move from hobbyists and small proof-of-concept tests, to regular beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights. The flying competition aimed to test the introduction of drones into the local aviation ecosystem; during the competition, the drones were fitted with transponders so that they were visible to other aircraft. These safety protocols will be adopted as the industry standard.
A core aim of the Lake Kivu Challenge was to platform and enable African companies and innovators. A business challenge was held for start-ups to pitch new opportunities emerging from the mainstream adoption of drones. The organisers asked start-ups to think of opportunities arising from low transport costs, just-in time delivery and access to massive amounts of imagery for mapping and monitoring. 148 competitors from across Africa were pooled in the competition, with 10 finalists selected for a live pitch event. The grand prize of £20,000 was won by the Nigerian start-up Global Air Drone Academy (GADA). They plan to use the funding to start building their physical facilities. Co-founder Emo Umoh said “We want to have a permanent space where people can come and learn and educate themselves on drone technology and this funding will help us start that process."
A clear message from the organisers of the Lake Kivu Challenge was that “Africa is open for business, presents cutting edge use-cases, and welcomes the world to invest in its local innovators.” This competition showcases Africa's fast-growing tech industry, reminding the world to watch this space and to continue to follow the exciting new technologies that are emerging from this part of the world.
James Macdonald is a PhD student based in the Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge at Darwin College
Images used with permission of Wingcopter and ADF.
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