News / Africa

Civilian Drones Raise Hopes, Questions in Africa

FILE - A technician checks a surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) drone operated by the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern city of Goma.  United Nations forces in Democratic Republic of Congo launched unmanned aircraft to monitor the volatile border with Rwanda and Uganda, the first time.
FILE - A technician checks a surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) drone operated by the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern city of Goma. United Nations forces in Democratic Republic of Congo launched unmanned aircraft to monitor the volatile border with Rwanda and Uganda, the first time.
Anne Look
— African militaries want surveillance drones to help them patrol their borders and vast open spaces, but engineers and entrepreneurs say unmanned aerial vehicles could do so much more than just track the bad guys. They could deliver medicines, protect endangered species, and drive economic growth, with cargo drones moving goods quickly and cheaply. But some experts warn that opening up civilian air space to drones, even for such purportedly "good" uses, could create problems in the long run.

Kenyan engineer James Munyoki has built several drones. His latest prototype can carry 6 kilograms. He is working on getting that up to 10. "When I started building them, I was thinking the payload would be something like a camera for surveillance purposes. We need that in Kenya. That would enhance security," he explained. "Apart from that, it can also monitor traffic. These are drones that can be used for journalism or photography, so the application is not just going to be for military purpose or security purpose."

Drones, not just for military

Unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as UAV's or drones, are not just for the military anymore, and experts say Africa is where this technology, so associated with killing and controversy, could come to seek redemption, or at least rebranding.

Rangers in South Africa are flying small "eco-drones" over game reserves to watch over endangered rhinos.

Some experts said "disaster drones" could monitor refugee flows or human rights abuses, assist in "search and rescue" missions, and even, one day, deliver aid to hard-to-reach or dangerous areas.

Use in medicine

It sounds pretty space age -- that vaccines could whiz themselves to village health clinics in temperature-controlled flying bins -- but corporations and institutions, like the Gates Foundation, are working on exactly that kind of thing right now.

From Silicon Valley to robotics labs in Kenya to tech start-ups in New Zealand, innovators are looking at Africa's surging economic growth and pathetically bad roads and seeing opportunity for the so-called "leapfrog continent" to make another technological skip forward.

Some envision vast, autonomous networks of battery-powered hovercrafts or quadcopters, the size of pizza boxes, hopping from recharge station to recharge station as the network delivers small payloads to city suburbs or remote villages.

Use in agriculture

Arturo Pelayo of the tech company ARIA, or Autonomous Roadless Intelligent Array, gives the example of a farmer with a broken tractor. "You could have a farmer take a picture of the part that broke. There would an engine on the cloud of the system that would analyze that picture. It would identify what part broke. This picture that is taken, it is sent to the nearest station, which is a retro-fitted shipping container with its own solar panel or wind or renewable energy source. And there is a 3-D printer that can print the replacement part for this farmer right then and there," he said. "He can have the part from an hour or two from the time it is printed. He gets charged to his cell phone directly and he gets the instructions on the phone on how to install the part."

Some of this technology doesn't exist yet, including some of the all-important "search and avoid" sensor capabilities that would keep these little aircraft from running into trees or each other. Drones still tend to crash a lot and they are pretty expensive.
And then there's the issue that you can't just fly things around in the civilian airspace of most countries without the proper laws, permissions and flight control coordination. Laws related to civilian drone use don't even exist in African countries, yet.
And then there's the design of the aircraft themselves.

A series of contests in Africa aimed at finding answers to these and other questions is set to kick off in 2014.

It's called the Flying Donkey Challenge and it will culminate in 2020 with a race around Mount Kenya by UAV inventions capable of carrying 20 kg over 50 km in under an hour.

Use in commerce

The challenge's director, Jonathan Ledgard, said these "flying donkeys," or large "cargo robots" "The only "d" word we use is donkey," he stated. "We don't like to use the word drone."

He said these "donkeys" haven't been invented yet, so no one really knows what they will look like or be like. But they will need to be pretty high-tech while also being rugged and affordable. "The price of a medium quality motorbike…you need something that locally is going to be able to be repaired and fixed quite easily," Ledgard stated.

He sees "donkeys" fueling growth in light manufacturing and an explosion in e-commerce as Africa's population booms and increasingly gets online.

"You can imagine flying donkey corridors, air corridors, which are basically alongside the road and just flying stuff back and forth all day," Ledgard said.

But some experts say shaking off the drone stigma won't be so easy.  
Self-professed technology skeptic, Kristin Sandvik, Director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies, says drones may resolve some issues but they will raise others.

"Across Africa, very few countries have comprehensive domestic legislation on privacy and data protection and information storage….A drone cannot only see or listen. It can also sense and hear and read for example so in a couple of years time when you have the smaller drones also outfitted with facial recognition technology. For example, you could have smaller drones that could potentially hack into wireless systems," said Sandvik.

Drones, she said, are also pretty easy to hack into, and they can have dual capabilities, both things that could prove problematic, for example for an aid agency using a camera-outfitted drone to deliver relief items to a refugee camp.

"Is the drone going to then give [over] all of this humanitarian crisis mapping information? Is that going to be handed over the International Criminal Court for example?" Sandvik questioned.

But skeptics and dreamers alike do agree on something. This technology is coming, likely within the next decade, so Africa, get ready.

You May Like

At International AIDS Conference One Goal, Many Paths

The 12,000 delegates attending 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne have vastly different visions about how to eradicate disease More

Disasters May Doom Malaysia’s Flag Carrier

Even before loss of two jets loaded with passengers on international flights, company had been operating in red for three years, accumulating deficit of $1.3 billion More

Afghan Presidential Vote Audit Continues Despite Glitches

Process has been marred by walkouts by representatives of two competing candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Agei
X
Elizabeth Lee
July 20, 2014 2:36 AM
Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.
Video

Video Diplomatic Crisis Grows Over MH17 Plane Crash

The Malaysia Airlines crash in eastern Ukraine is drawing reaction from leaders around the world. With suspicions growing that a surface-to-air missile shot down the aircraft, there are increasing tensions in the international community over who is to blame. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Undocumented Immigrants Face Perilous Journey to US, No Guarantees

Every day, hundreds of undocumented immigrants from Central America attempt the arduous journey through Mexico and turn themselves over to U.S. border patrol -- with the hope that they will not be turned away. But the dangers they face along the way are many, and as Ramon Taylor reports from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, their fate rests on more than just the reception they get at the US border.
Video

Video Scientists Create Blackest Material Ever

Of all the black things in the universe only the infamous "black holes" are so black that not even a tiny amount of light can bounce back. But scientists have managed to create material almost as black, and it has enormous potential use. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Fog Collector Transforming Maasai Water Harvesting in Kenya

The Maasai people of Kenya are known for their cattle-herding, nomadic lifestyle. But it's an existence that depends on access to adequate water for their herds and flocks. Lenny Ruvaga reports for VOA, on a "fog collector."

AppleAndroid