The aviation industry in terms of performance faces a great impediment as a result of high industry costs and inadequate infrastructure at several airports. Though, given the current rate of economic growth, increased urbanization and emergence of the middle class, the situation is deemed to change due to high demand for services linked to air transportation.
The role of Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) in air cargo industry is an essential catalyst towards efficient delivery of goods in remote regions, lifesaving products to those in need and for commercial purposes. Use of drones is one technology that a local company is exploring in a bid to offer a secure and safe way in managing traffic and air cargo transport in Africa.
Geoffrey Nyaga works with Astral Aerial Solutions, a subsidiary of Astral Aviation, a dedicated cargo Airline with a strong footprint in Africa. He studied Aeronautical engineering at Technical University of Kenya (TUK) and graduated in December 2016 with first class honors. Since childhood, Nyaga has always been fascinated by technology applied in airplanes and he grew up watching military aircrafts landing and taking off from the Nanyuki airstrip.
He recently won the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Air Cargo Innovation Awards 2017, an initiative striving to drive greater innovation by encouraging entrepreneurial ideas for the air cargo industry. The annual event held in Abu Dhabi saw Geoffrey pitch a UTM-UAV Traffic Management system. Astral was competing against Etihad Cargo, Jettainer, Open Airlines and Gatechain with their various projects.
“At Astral Aerial Solutions, we had observed the negativity surrounding drone use in Africa especially in regions with perennial conflicts. Additionally, there is always the bad publicity when drones invade restricted airspaces such as airports, embassies, government buildings, military bases and densely populated areas
However, the underlying challenge is the poor infrastructure and communication network in Africa unlike other parts of the world where cellular coverage is ubiquitous, there are still many areas in Africa that have no basic communication network. We developed the UTM concept to address all these challenges.
Solutions like advanced scheduling of drone flights and using offline activation codes will be applicable when operating in areas with little or no cellular coverage,” remarked Nyaga.
The UTM-UAV (Unmanned Aerial vehicle) Traffic Management system is specifically designed for low altitude airspace operations where unmanned aircrafts operate. The concept introduces virtual highways and routes for drones and demarcates the airspace into different flight levels depending on size and nature of the mission. The UTM also provides vital information to drone operators such as weather updates, restricted airspace and altitude restrictions. This data is also shared with the regulators.
“We are very confident that the UTM concept will provide a safer environment for drone operations and prevent drones from colliding with other aircrafts in the airspace. It’s designed with Africa in mind, but can be used anywhere in the world,” said Astral CEO, Mr. Sanjeev Gadhia.
In January 2017, Nyaga and two of his colleagues, Hazel and Mwanzia developed a Flyox drone. Flyox is world’s biggest civilian cargo drone that will be managed by Astral Aerial. It has a payload capacity of 2,000 kg, maximum range of 1200km and flight endurance of 26 hours on surveillance mode.
“What is more exciting is its capability to land on water and unpaved runways on remote areas which will be really advantageous in Africa. The drone has been manufactured by our partners in Spain and is currently completing flight tests in West Africa awaiting registration in Kenya. This drone will mainly be used for air transport of cargo from a central logistics hub (drone port) to remote areas and will serve the agriculture, oil and gas, cargo and ecommerce industries,” states Nyaga.
Cargo transport using drones in Africa is only viable using high payload, long range drones. It also makes logic if cargo transport is faster, more reliable, cost effective and having the ability to bring connectivity between several remote towns with inadequate infrastructure. High payload drones will successfully serve such requirements at the fraction of the cost.
Nyaga expects to see a lot of developments and testing of cargo drones in the course of 2017 and urges stakeholders in the drone and aviation industry to come together for a successful development and implementation of the UTM concept. This will in turn be used as a platform to set common standards in the drone industry.
Previously, he engaged in two projects while in university. The first was ‘Kenya One’, a 4 passenger aircraft that can cover a range of over 6,000km, 3 fixed landing gear and unpressurized cabins with two pistons. The project was idealized in 2014 as part of the country’s vision 2030 goals. The project has also featured at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2015 and in the Amazing World of Engineering (AWEsome). AWEsome is a fact fiction documentary that educates and entertains on a range of engineering topics.
The software used in actualizing the prototype was Catia V5 and in September 2014, speed, velocity and climbing function of the aircraft was tested as required by law.
“This project is feasible though a lot needs to be done by government especially when it comes to funding and putting in place regulatory framework associated with designing and building of aircrafts. This could largely open up numerous opportunities for young engineers and go a long way in improving standards in engineering education in Kenya,” insists Nyaga.
The second project was designing and building a fixed wing drone using locally available materials. It was the first drone built out of plywood though it crashed after takeoff.
Nyaga observes that ICT will play a pivotal role in the growth of the aviation industry, particularly in the cargo industry and drone industry. There are global trends in Big Data which will see developments in machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) implementation in the service framework.
“In the drone technology, communication networks for low flying drones (GSM, 3G and 4G) will be very influential in the operational growth of the industry and working of the UTM. There are drones that are already using AI and computer vision for sensing and avoiding obstacles and terrain,” notes Nyaga.
In 2016, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) said that it had received at least 1,000 applications seeking regulatory approval to operate drone-based technology. Astral was one of the companies that had applied for a license to operate the drone and had committed KES50 million to begin drone operations in 2017.