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Drones for all: The rising need for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Kenya and the region

Ben Roberts – Liquid Telecom Kenya

By Ben Roberts, Chief Technical Officer at Liquid Telecom.

By 2022, the airspace will be busier with Flying Mini Robots as the number of commercial drones expected to go over 620,000 whilst their commercial market expected to hit USD15bn globally. While highest usage is in the USA and China, drone technology and application is vast flowing into the rest of the world.

In Africa, Rwanda is now a test grounds for drones as the continent slowly starts to embrace the use of drones in their airspace. Drones are far more reliable, fast and efficient.

Drone use had for a very long time been associated with governments and the military especially for manning military grounds and spying. In recent years, however, drones have been approved for civilian use. They have since then been developed for more positive and productive ways like aerial photography in film and journalism, shipping and delivery of materials, gathering information in cases of disaster management, geographic mapping in areas with inaccessible terrains, building safety requirements and cargo transport.

Drone usage has had its fair share of criticism from their unregulated usage in many African countries including Kenya. Privacy concerns are a major concern for many who may think that drones will intrude on their space and privacy. With this in mind, Kenya is yet to fully implement the Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems Regulations 2017, which will allow Kenyans to use drones for filming and photography, sports, other private and commercial activities.

Rwanda has carried out over 1400 successful blood deliveries using the drones to almost half of Rwanda’s blood transfusion centres. This is an indication of the willingness by governments in the continent to embrace the use of drones in the recent years.

Being the continent with the most number of third world countries, Africa has shown great interest in health advancement by use of drones to deliver medical supplies and vaccines to rural areas, geographical mapping and in the photography and film sectors.

By January 2018, the Tanzanian government is set to begin delivery of medical supplies in various parts of country using drones. This will play a major role in curbing disease spread mostly in rural areas where trucks would take so long to get to the areas due to the terrible terrain thus causing deaths due to lack of vaccines/medication in time. Elsewhere, Malawi is using drones to transfer HIV tests to and from rural areas of the country while Morocco uses them to monitor illegal maritime authority and Uganda allows drone testing to be done in their airspaces.

In Kenya, early adopters of the drone technology were tech entrepreneurs who developed applications giving solutions on how to use drones for aiding relief, carry out agricultural surveys and assist in e-commerce.

In the near future, we will see e-commerce companies including food delivery companies in Kenya leverage on drones’ efficiency to deliver goods for their customers. This would be a major boost for the industry curbing loses incurred from the damage of property in transit and cut time spent in traffic. However drone delivery is unlikely to be a cost effective method in some areas such as delivery of pizzas in Nairobi, where the cost of a motorcycle delivery is way affordable.

In the next few years, Africa will double the achievements made in the last decade following her embracing innovations in the drone technology that will even help make the country to country trade easier.

Like in the days when messengers were sent with very important deliveries, drones will replace the messengers, only they are much faster and unmanned.

Drone delivery may not be such a new concept. In World War II, forces on both sides used homing pigeons to carry messages from behind enemy lines.  When urgency and reliability are paramount (delivering emergency drugs to rural areas for instance), drone delivery can save lives just like those heroic pigeons.

Today, instead of landing, some just fly by and drop packages attached to a parachute, then the drones safely return back to their control centres. The level of intelligence and coordination is profound. At the end, critical medical supplies, for example, are in their destined areas in the shortest amount of time.

But what are the underlying technical aspects of these drones? Principally, the drones follow predetermined routes to their destinations powered by artificial intelligence (AI) with the object to object communication (IoT), of which the heart of this communication is connectivity.

Liquid Telecom has used quad copter drones in video production. They demonstrated Wi-Fi and drone technology in 2016 to produce the first ever live outside broadcast of the Kenya national rally championship.  All with the bird’s eye view from a drone to follow the cars for much longer than any other footage, live streaming onto YouTube from a remote rural area on the shores of Lake Elementaita.

As such, Liquid Telecom – the leading independent data, voice and IP provider in eastern, central and southern Africa – is building the continent’s digital future by supporting start-ups and businesses with their IoT journey through the rollout of high-speed networks across the region.

By global standards, use of drones and IoT for collection of data can be much cheaper than traditional types of aerial survey.  So wild animal census is an application that has been used in some parks and conservancies.

As seen, many African countries have already embarked on their IoT journey: intelligent traffic lights in Nairobi are helping to ease traffic congestion, load-limiting smart meters are helping to combat outages in South Africa, while drone technology is being used as part of conservation efforts in national parks. Eventually, IoT is becoming an opportunity that businesses in Africa cannot afford to ignore.