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

    Native Americans Ask: What About Our Water Supply?

    They say they have been facing a dangerous water contaminant for decades - uranium – but the problem has received far less attention than water contamination by lead in Flint, Michigan

    Pakistan's President Urges Nation Not to Celebrate Valentine's Day

    Mamnoon Hussain criticizes Valentine's Day, which falls on Sunday this year, as a Western import that threatens to undermine the Islamic values of Pakistan

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.