The government of Rwanda is moving quickly to establish regulatory frameworks for remotely piloted aircrafts, following interest from an investor to build the first airport for drones in the country, with construction expected to commence early in 2017.
In November, Norman Foster, who is a world renowned British architect, expressed his firm’s interest in building the first worldwide drone port in Rwanda. The aim is to enable the speedy delivery of urgently needed medical supplies as well as electronic supplies to the more remote parts of the region, through the use of drones.
In his proposal, Foster and his partners in the project said that, beginning 2017, they intend to commence the construction of three drone ports over a span of four years.
Rwandese Regulatory Frameworks and Support
In order to facilitate this highly anticipated development, the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority (RCAA) has been busy drafting a set of regulations that will be submitted to the country’s cabinet for approval and are expected to come into force by mid-2017.
According to a press statement by Tony Barigye, who is the public relations officer for the RCAA, the aim of the new regulations is to ensure that the adoption of the technology is done in a way that is efficient, safe and secure.
“As soon as the regulations are in force, Rwanda will be able to regulate any projects related to remotely piloted aircraft systems including and not limited to drone operations and all infrastructure required,” he said.
A Leap into the Future of Aviation
Foster’s company is looking to develop a facility that will be used by countries in the entire region and plans to expand to the entire continent of Africa.
In the remarks he made, which accompanied the proposal and the implementation plan for the drone port, the architect stressed that, in the same way mobile phones have supplanted landlines across the continent, cargo drones are capable of overcoming geographical boundaries with minimal need for the construction of vast physical infrastructure.
About the Drone Project
How the proposal works is that it estimates that a specialized drone could carry lifesaving medical supplies including blood for over 100 kilometers in remote areas at minimal cost, thus offering countries like Rwanda a viable alternative to other modes of transport.
The proposal provides few details about the drones themselves; except that the vehicles will have a wing span of three meters and will be able to airlift about 10 kilograms (22lb) of supplies for about 100 kilometers. This means that the drones based at the airport should be capable of covering almost half of the country.
The Future of the Project
According to Foster’s proposal, the new facility will feature two networks: one that will be dedicated to the delivery of essential emergency and medical supplies and another used for commercial purposes that need the delivery of larger, but still crucial payloads, such as electronics, e-commerce tools and spare parts.
The subsequent phases proposed for the project will see about 40 similar facilities set up all over the continent. Rwanda was chosen for the first drone port since its location is seen as ideal for expansion into neighboring countries.
In addition to the airport itself, the facility is expected to spurn an ecosystem around it which could be developed into a commercial hub. It will have a digital fabrication facility, an e-commerce trading center, a health clinic and a courier room.
Bridging the Gap in Africa’s Infrastructure
Foster has said that Rwanda provided an interesting test platform for the project because of the country’s challenging geographical landscape. He also noted that a large part of the continent had a significant gap that exists between the population and vital physical infrastructure, and that the situation made the provision of commercial services and essential medical supplies a challenge.
“The shortage of terrestrial infrastructure has a direct impact on the ability to deliver life-giving supplies… We require immediate bold, radical solutions to address this issue,” he said.
He said that his drone project was all about doing “more with less” and taking advantage of the huge leaps that drone technology has taken recently. Currently, the technology is already in limited use in Rwanda, which has a few functional drones. Most of these are used for aerial photography at public events or in large open spaces, such as the country’s national parks.
The Bottom Line
At this point in time, Rwanda is in sharp contrast to more developed economies on the continent, such as South Africa and Kenya, whose officials strictly regulate the use of remotely piloted aircraft. It is possible that the country’s tech-friendly policies could have a hand in why it was selected for the drone airport project. The progressive nature of the country’s government has seen it experience a remarkable turnaround since the 1994 genocide that brought its economy to a standstill.