Tornadoes and Frisky Birds Couldn’t Stop These Delivery Drones

At the Lake Victoria Challenge, cargo drones showed off their capabilities

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In October of 2018, the World Bank and the Government of Tanzania cosponsored the first Lake Victoria Challenge (LVC). Set on the southern shore of Lake Victoria, in the city of Mwanza, the event is intended to promote the development of delivery drones.

It’s a good spot for such a gathering; Lake Victoria is the largest lake in Africa, and the towns and villages scattered across its islands and along its shores could benefit from drones that transport goods.

  • In addition to a symposium on drone policy, the LVC featured demos from a handful of European delivery-drone companies. The German company Wingcopter flew its high-speed cargo drone, which has a range of 100 kilometers and a maximum payload of 6 kilograms. The drone takes off vertically, then its propellers rotate 90 degrees for efficient fixed-wing flight.

  • RigiTech, a company based in Switzerland, sees its drone as a cargo workhorse. The boxy interior can hold up to 15 liters in volume, and the drone is both rugged and easy to repair—important features when operating in areas with little infrastructure.

  • The drone from Stockholm-based Globhe is designed for high-speed delivery of medical supplies and blood samples for humanitarian organizations. It can also be equipped with a camera to provide data for automated image analysis after disasters. While Globhe is optimistic about the future business potential for cargo deliveries, company representatives say that today’s restrictive regulations have shifted its current focus to aerial mapping.

  • Lake Victoria’s shores are home to a diverse population of birds—including hawks that didn't always appreciate robotic intrusions into their airspace. While the hawks were mostly just curious, they occasionally made close feints at the drones. As far as we know, no drones (and no birds) were harmed during the LVC. But the avian harassment was a reminder that drones will have to deal with a variety of natural hazards.

  • Juma Island is one of nearly 1000 islands in Lake Victoria. Most of Juma’s inhabitants make their living by fishing, as do the residents of many of the other islands. Currently, these fishing communities rely on middlemen with motorboats to bring their catch to the market in Mwanza. During the LVC, the Zurich-based startup Wingtra demonstrated that its drone could fly autonomously to Juma. One day, larger cargo drones might transport fish to market.

  • On the day of Wingtra’s mission to Juma, the weather was ominous, with tornadoes in the forecast. But if cargo drones are to operate commercially, they’ll need to make deliveries even if conditions aren’t optimal. On mission day, Wingtra representatives got reports of multiple waterspouts touching down over the lake but decided to fly their bright orange drone anyway.

  • At the LVC launch area, safety-crew members and Juma community leaders gathered around two members of the Wingtra team who were monitoring their drone’s flight. While the drone flew autonomously, the Wingtra technicians watched it closely throughout the flight in case some emergency required them to take the controls.

  • On Juma, the Wingtra demonstration drew many curious bystanders. Island residents waited for well over an hour after bad weather delayed the launch, but they were rewarded when the drone finally arrived and landed flawlessly on a smooth patch of sandy beach.

  • While all of the companies demonstrating delivery drones at the LVC were from Europe, Tanzania is developing its own drone industry. One of the primary challenges for local companies is the availability of affordable materials and components that are also easy to fix. That’s why Tanzanian native Bornlove Ntikha designed a drone made partially of bamboo.

  • With a bamboo frame, simple motors, and about US $60 worth of electronics, Ntikha’s drone made a successful test flight at the LVC. Drones like his are able to carry small cameras for short periods of time. In Tanzania, that capability can enable an entrepreneur to start a small business taking aerial photos or performing agriculture surveys.

  • Leka Tingitana is the managing director of Tanzania Flying Labs, an organization that promotes drones for social good. He used the LVC as an opportunity to introduce drone technology to students in nearby schools. Leka hopes to inspire the next generation of drone pilots, who will be able to fulfill the growing demand for drone services across Tanzania.

  • There is already substantial demand for drone services in Tanzania, particularly for aerial photography and the creation of high-resolution community maps. For example, most small farmers in Tanzania don’t have official titles to their land, and being able to define the boundaries of the farm with an aerial map allows them to take out loans against their land to fund improvements.

  • During Tingitana’s demonstration at a high school, the students seemed fascinated by the drones. Those interested in studying the technology and its applications may go on to institutions like the State University of Zanzibar, which has an active drone lab; the university has been collaborating on the Zanzibar Mapping Initiative for years.

  • Drone innovation will also continue at the Lake Victoria Challenge, which is planning its next event—with more competitions for cargo drones—for late November 2019.

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