Drones in Africa: Saving Lives and Promoting National Development

The African continent is not considered a major center of drone industry activity – and for good reason.   Several countries, including Algeria and Morocco, have gone so far as to ban drones outright; the penalties for drone flying are severe.  Many others make it nearly impossible for foreigners to fly drones unless they pay an enormous sum to obtain a temporary permit.  Even countries that are open to drones largely prohibit drone flying in their numerous national parks and wilderness sanctuaries – ostensibly to protect the wildlife.  While some foreign movie companies do obtain flyover rights to shoot scenic videos, they operate under strict conditions and must pay hefty fees.

Still, a growing number of African countries, aware of the commercial benefits of expanded drone use, are beginning to open up.  And while many worry that a  major influx of Western companies with advanced drone technologies could overwhelm them, some are taking advantage of foreign investment interest to create joint partnerships and local spin-offs to leverage their own national development efforts.

Take Rwanda.  Since 2016, the government has hosted the medical supply delivery operations of the Silicon Valley-based drone company Zipline.  The company began delivering blood and vaccines to remote rural areas difficult for the central government to reach from hospitals in the capital.  Today Zipline is operating everywhere, accounting for 75% of all blood and frozen plasma deliveries.   But Zipline’s presence has also sparked the emergence of a Rwandan-owned start-up, Charis UAS, which is growing rapidly in its own right.  Charis has already collaborated with the government on a series of anti-malaria campaigns and recently began conducting aerial mapping of the nation’s wetlands, enhancing NASA satellite imagery.

Another important African pioneer is Zambia, where the state-supported firm, iDrone Services (IDS), formed in 2016, assists local producers to map their vast farmlands while also practicing state-of-the-art “precision” agriculture to boost their yields.   The company has also sponsored the “Idrone4ag youth project,”  which trains youngsters in rural areas in the technical and operational dimensions of drone flying, data management and maintenance.  IDS hopes to create enough qualified agricultural jobs so that rural populations facing inevitable pressures to migrate will stay put to spur local development instead.

Some US-based drone companies are following Zipline’s example and exploring major new expansion opportunities elsewhere in Africa.  A good example is Wingcopter, which is planning to deploy a whopping 12,000 of its drones across nearly 50 countries in sub-Saharan Africa by 2027.  The company’s flagship aircraft is the Wingcopter 198, a large fixed-wing drone that can fly up to 68 miles continuously with a cargo capacity of 13 pounds. The Wingcopter is unusually versatile for a package delivery drone:  It  can drop three individual packages in the course of a single flight.

Wingcopter is working in close partnership with Continental Drones, which has deep roots and extensive business experience in the region. Wingcopter will act as the drone technology provider but Continental Drones will actually distribute the company’s aircraft and manage local partnerships and support operations.  The first fleet of Wingcopter delivery drones will be delivered to the region in early 2023.

There’s a reason firms like Wingcopter are drawn to Africa.  With their poor road infrastructure, highly dispersed rural population and relatively loose regulatory structure, African nations don’t present the operational and logistical constraints and institutional hurdles drone companies typically confront back home.  And with their vast unmet social needs, many African nations desperately need outside technical support.

But not all.  In Tanzania, local villagers near Lake Victoria have decided to build their own drones out of the bamboo stalks that grow freely nearby.  Typically, one large piece of bamboo is cut with a machete to form the drone airframe while smaller bamboo stalks are trimmed to become crosspieces.  How is the drone held together?  With zipties, while motors attached to the cross pieces are held in place with 3D-printed mounts.  Zip ties and tape are used to keep the battery and electronics in place. It takes villagers just two hours to assemble their homemade drones, which are beginning to carve out a niche among small local producers and hobbyists that can’t afford the trendy DJI.

How far can Tanzania’s homegrown drone market get?  It helps that the country’s drone regulations are quite strict, which tends to discourage foreign suppliers.  Flying in or around major cities and even less populated urban areas is prohibited.  All drones must be piloted, with formal licensing to fly them required.  In addition, a permit must be obtained from the Tanzanian Central Aviation Authority for any commercial drone operation.  Drones must also be light-weight – 15.5 pounds or less – too light to accommodate Wincopter or Zipline drones.

Tanzania wants to encourage its homemade drone market – it’s an important symbol of national sovereignty in a country that has long extolled African “self-reliance” – but official doubts remain about its long-term commercial potential.  The central government has contracted with foreign suppliers to conduct aerial drone mapping of farms and with United Nations support, drones are also supporting garbage cleanups at the nation’s tourist beaches.  But as Africa’s drone market continues to expand, homemade drones, which are much cheaper to build and to maintain – will be difficult to ignore.  In fact, most of the bamboo drones come equipped with unmanned traffic management (UTM) software that allows them to identify where other drones are flying, a capability lacking in more commercial drones.  Bamboo operators say they know a day is coming when drones will fill the skies over Tanzania and the rest of the continent – and when they do, they want to be ready.

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