Meet the brains behind Rwanda's first drones
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At the 10th annual gorilla naming ceremony – Kwita Izina in Kinigi, Musanze in July 2014, one thing stood out: the presence of a drone camera hovering above the crowd and capturing images of events as they unfolded.
As things were then, not many in the crowd even knew it was a drone camera, confessing they were witnessing the spectacle for the very first time.
So the simple conclusion was that it was a “small helicopter” flying overhead for God-knows-what-reason.
We were to later learn that this was actually an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), or simply “drone”, hauled in by a Nigerian TV crew to capture superior aerial images from the ceremony.
Needless to say, it was the most talked-about thing at that year’s gorilla naming ceremony.
Demystifying the drone
Commonly known as a drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. The drone is controlled either autonomously by onboard computers, or by the remote control of a pilot on the ground.
In July 2014, the same month that the drone made its first (and so far only) appearance at Kwita Izina or indeed a public event in Rwanda, CHARIS Unmanned Aerial Solutions was founded as the first unmanned aerial vehicle company in Rwanda.
An apparent act of co-incidence, considering that CHARIS is Rwandan founded and owned, with no links whatsoever to the drone that mesmerized Kwita Izina in 2014.
Located at the Solace Ministries complex in Kacyriu, CHARIS is the brainchild of an enthusiastic and tech-savvy young Rwandan, Rutayisire Eric Muziga, its founder and CEO.
Rutayisire holds a Masters of Electrical Engineering from the University of Minnesota in the US.
How it all started
It was while studying electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota that Rutayisire was first introduced to drone technology:
He was introduced to it by one of his professors, who worked for a drone company. This professor would soon become his mentor, encouraging the young engineer about the huge potential that the sector presented.
“That’s how I saw and seized an opportunity in the UAV industry. The idea was to have in Africa or Rwanda for that matter, people doing real engineering work. That’s my passion. I want to see opportunities created for young Rwandans who are coming from engineering school,” Rutayisire explains, adding: “That is why I decided to not do it in the US, but to bring it to my own country.”
Upon finishing school, he returned to Rwanda and teamed up with two like-minded people; his sister, Ingabire Muziga Mamy, and Segore Teddy.
Teddy is a fresh graduate of Electrical Engineering from the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), and upon graduation in 2015, joined CHARIS.
“Eric is my childhood friend, and so when he returned from the US and approached me with the idea of starting up a drone company, I took it up immediately because I was doing Electrical Engineering at KIST as well,” he explains:
“It has really widened my engineering knowledge because now I can delve into the more practical aspects of engineering to compliment the theory I learnt from school.”
While Ingabire Muziga Mamy is the company’s Managing Director and studied Bio tech science at a University in South Africa:
“Eric is my younger brother. One time he just came home for holidays and started telling us about his plans to start a drone company here. Even before that, from a young age, we knew he was destined to be an engineer, because he always liked to create certain things on his own,” she explains.
“For me it was quite a new experience, and adventurous too. It’s not been a year yet, and looking at some the projects already done so far, it’s amazing.”
Rutayisire explains that as a drone company, CHARIS deals in systems integration:
“We don’t just go and buy drones and bring them down here. No. We first conceptualize what we want to do, make calculations as to the kind of drone we want to have in Rwanda, and then based on that, we buy the requisite components, and then we do what we call system integration. We have our partners who supply individual parts like mortars and propellers.”
When the company opened its doors in July 2014, it was for purposes of testing the market. Hence it started off with just two drones –the smallest, used for in-house training of staff, and a slightly bigger one for field demonstrations.
A few weeks ago, the company introduced its second drone model on the market, with slightly improved features.
For instance, while the first model had a maximum flight time of 10 minutes, the improved model can fly for up to 40 minutes.
Rutayisire explains that the drones his company has at the moment are suited for three activities; agriculture, aerial photography, and construction.
As the technology becomes more readily available, drones, once associated with the military, are increasingly being deployed in civilian tasks.
In places like Haiti and the Philippines, humanitarian organizations use UAVs for data collection and tasks that include real time information and situation monitoring, public information and advocacy, search and rescue, and mapping.
Rutayisire further explains that apart from military operations for which the name “drone” is most associated, there are several other civil aviation uses for the technology: aerial surveying of crops, aerial footage in filmmaking, search and rescue operations, inspection of power lines and pipelines, counting wildlife, and delivering medical supplies to remote or otherwise inaccessible regions.
The UAV can also be used for more recreational purposes, like taking footage at social events like weddings.
However Rutayisire explains that this is subject to approval from the police and other relevant local authorities, “for purposes of safety and order, and also to protect our airspace”.
Done with the initial stages of disseminating messages about drone technology to potential clients, the company now has its eyes set on completing a new tech lab at its Kacyiru base, “to nurture skills transfer”.