Rwanda makes African history licencing first commercial drone operation


(Posted 11th May 2016)

The more than 350 delegates to the just ended AFRAA Aviation Stakeholder Convention were due for several surprises, as they learned when listening to various presentations and in particular the Masterclass session by Bruno Boucher of LH Consulting, where he talked about the setting up of a commercial UAV operation as part of the airline business.
First they learned that Rwanda, arguably as Africa’s first country, had already passed revised air service regulations covering the use of drones.
Then, on the final day of the convention, did news break in Kigali that the RCAA, short for Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority, had already licensed a company to commence operations which will see the airborne delivery of urgent medical supplies across the country a reality.

Zipline, a Californian UAV manufacturing company, GAVI, founded by the Melissa and Bill Gates Foundation and UPS, one of the global logistics providers and shippers of urgent cargo and mail have reportedly partnered to establish Rwanda’s and in fact Africa’s first commercial operation, due to commence before the end of the year.

Zipline is due to deploy about 15 drones to Kigali from where they will then be used to airdrop medical supplies from as low an elevation as 50 feet above ground, using a unique parachute which once used is then discarded together with the packaging material. Objective is to operate daily, though weather may be a limiting factor during the height of the rainy season and supply the more outlying medical centres with up to 150 deliveries a day.
The Rwandan government is according to individuals spoken with during a just concluded visit to Kigali very keen to see this technology rolled out and tested, to, at a later stage, then also use it for other civilian applications.
The simple technology is thought ideal for the rugged terrain in Rwanda and the climatic conditions and the fixed wing construction is expected to perform much better than quad-copter types which are difficult to control in heavy winds commonly encountered in parts of Rwanda.
The operation is expected to be a global groundbreaker and is more or less seen as a pilot scheme, gaining operational experience and then translating lessons learned from it for world wide use and deployment.
Technical data accessed suggest that the cruising speed can reach up to 60 mph while the operational radius was given as 45 miles.
Much of the funding comes from the UPS Foundation which is keen to absorb early lessons about the use of UAV’s as an airborne delivery vehicle and then roll out similar operations first back home in the United States before progressively, as local air service regulations permit, expand into other countries.
Meanwhile did Bruno Boucher, in his overflowing Masterclass at the AFRAA Aviation Convention, outline what progress Lufthansa Consulting has made to develop guidelines and tools to establish commercial drone operations. The company has evidently developed sets of draft regulations and even established an internal training module at their aviation academy to train drone operators on mission programming and flight supervision.

In fact did Bruno give explicit permission to reproduce his article for the ‘ Africa Wings‘ magazine, which is published in a combined French / English version by AFRAA for its members:

Start quote

Drone technology: Safe coexistence of airspace users is key
Africa could be a pioneer in developing regulation standards for synchronized operations

A vast number of professional drones or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), as they are officially termed, and an even greater number of private ones will be operated in the world airspace in the coming years. Drones are increasingly used for commercial reasons and becoming more popular for private purposes as “toy” versions. Many companies worldwide already apply UAV technology in the fields of agriculture, logistics, the media and advertising.

There is a lot of pressure applied to civil aviation authorities not only from potential users of UAVs but manufacturers that are promoting their products and trying to quickly gain a share of this fast growing market to start operating their systems anywhere they can fly.

Most countries and international organizations have not yet defined proper regulations for the operation of these type of flying devices in the airspace, close to the ground but also near and sometimes over airports and protected areas.

Whilst many efforts are underway from international regulation authorities and a few countries outside of Africa that should lead to some sort of regulations in the coming years, there is an immediate need to establish legal guidelines for the import and operation of UAVs in all African countries. Lufthansa Consulting is already helping customers, corporations as well as authorities to understand the role of UAVs and how they can be integrated not only into their business or the countries’ economical activities but also in harmony with other airspace users. Safety, professionalism and transparency are the main values to be promoted. Africa has the opportunity to play an important role in what could become a standard for other areas of the world by acting quickly and professionally.

The introduction of this technology is irreversible and Africa’s economy will definitely benefit from it. Strategical sectors such as agriculture, energy and transportation can potentially profit from the usage of UAVs to either replace existing methods or create new value at a fraction of the current costs. The responsibility of the main users of the airspace is to ensure secure and smooth coexistence of all operations in this valuable resource they share.

Now is the time to act responsibly in the interest of all stakeholders!

End quote

What has once again become clear is that Rwanda remains at the cutting edge of technology, be it as repeatedly mentioned here IT or as in this case aviation. The completion of the expansion of the international airport terminal in Kigali, the advance of the new taxiway construction, state of the art air navigation equipment and of course national airline RwandAir later this year going intercontinental for the first time when getting the first of two Airbus A330’s delivered, are all a pointer how serious the Rwandan government is to firmly propel the country into the 21st century, no ifs and buts tolerated and certainly never once uttering the common excuse so often heard in our part of the world that ‘this is Africa‘. Indeed is Rwanda in Africa and living proof that the sky is the limit when a determined and enlightened government puts its mind to serving and developing their country and not, as in many other countries, serve themselves.