The biggest gamechanger in the fight against Covid-19 has been the acceptance of the usage of drones. Even as the pandemic has stifled economies worldwide, it has also led to governments adopting measures to make use of drones and data for good, to improve health supply chains and open up new perspectives within Africa.

Over the last few years, the African continent has been core to an exciting and rapidly expanding drone industry. In fact, African countries like Rwanda, Cameroon, Malawi, South Africa, and Kenya are increasingly open to the use of drones across various industries including tourism, health, ecommerce, and most importantly, humanitarian relief.

One has to only look at drone companies like Zipline to realise just how great the need is in some African nations for the timely delivery of blood, medication and other medical supplies. Zipline drones, which have already made over 25,000 life-saving deliveries, can carry 1.8kg per flight if more is needed, multiple drones are sent together. The drones have a service radius of around 50 miles (80 km) and an average flight time of 30 minutes, which would have taken a truck 5 hours to get to the patient and back.

Like Zipline, many drone companies like Swoop Aero, Wingcopter, UAVAid among others have been expanding their operations within the continent – especially with medical deliveries. In October, Australia-based Swoop Aero announced its preparedness to support Blantyre in Malawi in transporting Covid-19 samples from Mwanza Border to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital (QECH) through air by use of drones. The drones can transport up to 300 samples per trip and take four to five flights a day.

Meanwhile, Wingcopter, developer of autonomous delivery drones for humanitarian and commercial applications, is looking to expand its drone delivery network, with its partners UNICEF and the African Drone & Data Academy (ADDA). Wingcopter’s concept envisions setting up a locally operated delivery drone network in Malawi to support the local healthcare system, giving on-demand access to medical supplies such as Covid-19 test kits or vaccines. After proving the concept’s viability and successful implementation in Malawi, Wingcopter and UNICEF plan to adapt the concept and scale to Rwanda.

Meanwhile, UK-based UAVaid signed an agreement with Halkin Group, paving the way for their drones to be brought to Kenya to help the country rebuild and strengthen its healthcare system and economy, as part of Covid response. The memorandum of understanding signed between the two organisations is aimed at leading to the deployment of UAVaid’s multi-role HANSARD drone to Kenya, providing the country with a new airborne capability for medical deliveries, agriculture development, infrastructure inspection, public safety and wildlife protection across the country. The HANSARD drone is capable of delivering cargo (including medical supplies) of up to 10kg at a time over journey distances of up to 300 km in a single flight.

More recently, Kenya Airways announced that it is considering operating commercial drones in an effort to seek more revenues especially after the current pandemic dried most of its revenue streams coming from passengers.

More recently, Kenya Airways announced that it is considering operating commercial drones in an effort to seek more revenues especially after the current pandemic dried most of its revenue streams coming from passengers. According to a press release, the carrier’s chief executive officer Allan Kilavuka said the carrier is looking for new ways to stay afloat and unmanned aerial vehicles seems like a potential option worth considering.

Kilavuka added the company was exploring ways on how they could commercialise drone operations in the country by engaging various partners in the segment. He further said the carrier had necessary personnel with skills to start the project but pointed out lack of enough capital could be playing a role on current status.

Notably, this announcement comes at a time when the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority has unveiled various measures pertaining to legalisation of drone operations in the country. Kenya’s National Assembly has already passed a bill regarding the same after rejecting an earlier one.

Interestingly, Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) in association with its sales agent Air Canada has executed a letter of intent, with Nairobi-based Astral Aerial Solutions, subsidiary of well-established cargo airline Astral Aviation, to work jointly with the local regulator (Kenya Civil Aviation Authority) and identify and analyse market opportunities in Kenya for DDC’s drone delivery solution with the intent to work towards a definitive agreement for that market.

“We are honoured to co-operate with Drone Delivery Canada, and to learn from their experience in providing innovative drone-based logistics platforms in Canada that can be applied in Africa. The Canadian technology can benefit various sectors in Africa especially in healthcare and accessibility to remote communities,” said Sanjeev Gadhia, chief executive officer of Astral Aerial Solutions and Astral Aviation in a media statement.

Drone Delivery Canada’s Sparrow drone has a total flight range of up to 30km with a maximum payload capacity of approximately 10lbs and operates with the FLYTE software system.

DDC’s president and CEO Michael Zahra identified a number of potential applications starting from traditional last-mile cargo to mining, oil and gas, healthcare, humanitarian aid and infrastructure inspection services for implementing its drone logistics solution in Kenya. Earlier, in June this year, Astral Aerial had announced its collaboration with Wingcopter for last mile delivery solutions.

In another recent development, Switzerland-based drone technology developer WeRobotics has joined hands with Zimbabwean drone service company Precision Aerial to establish a technology and innovation hub named Zimbabwe Flying Labs.

The partnership looks to offer solutions to social challenges and meet local needs through drones and robotics, the companies say. The Zimbabwe Flying Labs, which was launched in mid-October aims to work in three key areas in the country: catalysing business; facilitating the drone and robotics ecosystem and building local skills in drone technology.

“Zimbabwe Flying Labs will help build up the local drone industry by organizing ‘Drones as a Service’ incubation programs that facilitate project opportunities and support for local entrepreneurs,” said Switzerland-based WeRobotics. Its focus will predominantly be on agriculture and smart farming, disaster mitigation and management, environment management, and healthcare delivery.

In a blog post, WeRobotics said the Zimbabwe Flying Labs team has already trained students on drones operation in disaster risk planning and post-disaster assessment and management with a local non-governmental organization (NGO).

“This training helped community leaders in rural areas understand how drones could help them and afforded many of them their first opportunity to see and operate the technology themselves,” reads part of the blog. WeRobotics said Zimbabwe Flying Labs will work with innovators, manufacturers, service providers, academic institutions, NGOs, and the government to nurture drones for a social good ecosystem.

With drone regulations in place across many nations in the African continent, it is telling that Africa continues to lead by example in terms of adoption of drone technology leapfrogging its developmental constraints.

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