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

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Works to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Smithsonian senior research botanist Vicki Funk says ultimate goal is 'trying to get one-half of the diversity of plant life on Earth at the genus level in two years' More

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

Report from member of British think tank says Russian extradition requests keep targets from traveling More

US Lawmakers Weigh Turkish Anti-terror Moves

Turkey’s two-pronged campaign against Islamic State militants, Kurdish PKK forces provokes mixed reactions on Capitol Hill More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponentsi
X
Henry Ridgwell
July 28, 2015 9:53 PM
A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video Special Olympics Athletes Meet International Friends

The Special Olympics are underway in Los Angeles, California, with athletes from 165 countries participating in an event that gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to take part in an international competition. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that for athletes and their families, it's also an opportunity to make new friends in an international setting.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Iran Nuclear Pact Wins Few New US Congressional Backers

Later this week, President Barack Obama returns from a trip to Africa to confront a U.S. Congress roiled by the nuclear accord with Iran, an agreement that has received the blessing of the U.N. Security Council. Days of intensive lobbying and testimony by top administration officials have won few new congressional supporters of the pact. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Critics of Japan Defense Policy Focus on Okinawa

In Okinawa, many locals have long complained that Tokyo places an unfair burden on the tiny island by locating most of Japan's U.S. military bases there. As Japan's government moves toward strengthening and expanding the country's defense policies, opponents of those plans are joining local protesters in Okinawa, voicing concern about where the country is headed. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from Okinawa.
Video

Video IS Uses Chemical Weapons in Syrian Attack

Islamic State militants have added a new weapon in their arsenal of fear: chemical weapons. VOA Kurdish service reporter Zana Omer was on the scene within hours of a recent attack in Hasakah, Syria, and has details of the subsequent investigation, in this report narrated by Miguel Amaya.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs