When the Government entered into a partnership with Zipline in 2016, an American logistics startup, Rwanda became the first country in the world to use drones to deliver blood.
The Government knew it was dealing with a big challenge, but there was also an understanding that there were more possibilities that would come with the opening of the environment for commercial use of drones, otherwise known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).
When President Paul Kagame joined the team behind the innovative solution in Muhanga District, he noted that the cutting-edge technology was going to enable the country to bypass the challenges of existing modes of transport.
Zipline specialists Edison Niyomurinzi and Egide Rutaganira at work in Kayonza District. Sam Ngendahimana.
That is true for the most part because, currently, the World Bank estimates that Africa needs to spend some $38 billion each year on transport infrastructure, plus a further $37 billion on operations and maintenance – that is just to sustain its current level of development.
Africa’s infrastructure deficit is more than a mobility issue. Today, road accidents are the continent’s third-biggest killer.
There was a belief that drones could offer a starting point for a new model of low-cost, fast and futuristic transportation, and Kagame argued that it demonstrated there were possibilities of “transforming business models in many industries beyond healthcare.”
Since then, Rwanda has been credited with championing the use of drones for non-military purposes and for becoming a test-bed for more future innovations that drones can deliver.
Moreover, the country received global recognition when it became the first country to put in place an open drone regulation.
And this year, that work gave the country a direct ticket to host the African Drone Forum, thanks to the collaboration between the Government and the World Economic Forum.
Rwanda will next year, in February, host the forum whose aim is to demonstrate how drones can be used for everything, from cargo delivery to emergency response throughout Africa.
The forum will feature a symposium, an expo, and series of flying competitions.
According to the organisers, the symposium will promote best drone ideas, technologies and practices for the continent, and the competitions will focus on aerial delivery solutions that will transform distribution services in Africa.
The expo, on the other hand, will convene global logistics experts, start-ups, drone pilots, and engineers to showcase their innovations and technology for cargo drone deliveries.
The event will include a regulatory summit that bringing together leading figures in drone technology from the private sector and airspace regulators to highlight and discuss what is possible for the future of drones in Africa.
Paula Ingabire, the Minister for ICT and Innovation, stressed that the forum will be a platform to highlight Rwanda’s experience and explore the potential for future applications.
“It’s an opportunity for Rwanda to share our experience in pioneering the use of Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) UAV operations, and our development of drone regulations,” she noted in a statement.
The BVLOS, which the minister referred to, is the most talked about thing in the drone industry, which means that drones are allowed to fly long distances out of sight.
This technically means that drones can be used to perform more tasks in various areas, like maritime and geological surveys, mining, and deliver more commercial products.
Serge Tuyihimbaze, the Managing Director of Leapr Labs, a local robotics company, told this paper that they were looking to forge new collaborations at the forum.
“We are interested in partnerships because the rest can be built upon that,” he said.
Drones are considered to be flying robots, and Tuyihambaze’s startup makes flying robots.
Africa is already a leader in the drone revolution with the first national scale deployments of drone delivery in countries such as Rwanda and Ghana and smaller-scale tests in Malawi and Zambia.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has been using drones in Malawi since 2016 for transporting laboratory samples for early infant HIV diagnosis in remote areas.
In Zambia, companies like Zambia Flying Labs are already providing drone training to local students. The team is also partnering with Tanzania Flying Labs on an extensive drone mapping project for city planners, airport personnel and the Lusaka City Council.
Africa also faces unique challenges that drones can help address, such as limited ground infrastructure, reflecting the fact that just one-third of Africans live within 2km of an all-weather road, and that there is a more than $50 billion investment gap in infrastructure throughout the continent.
The African Union (AU) says drones is a priority technology for the continent in 2018. Many African countries, however, don’t allow for robust drone use, in some cases barring most civilian groups’ access to airspace.
Timothy Reuter, the Head of Aerospace and Drones at the World Economic Forum, believes that increasing drone use in Africa does not only bring great benefits to business, agriculture and the health sector, but quite literally saves lives by taking deliveries off the roads and into the sky.
“To unleash this potential, new policies need to be put in place that safely open the skies to drones,” he said.