Last year, my grandfather saw a moving object in the sky while attending an Orthodox Christian religious event in Addis Ababa. He wondered and thought of it as a foreign country object carrying out intelligence activity.
But, I told him that it is a filming drone taking an aerial shot of the event managed by someone in the ground.
In the recent past, imported camera-carrying drones have become common in Ethiopia. It is now a usual thing to notice drones like the one my grandfather saw in the skies of Ethiopia.
These are being used for various purposes; From filming concerts, documentaries, weddings, TV shows, and football matches in the capital Addis Ababa and other regional cities.
For instance, young university students in iCog Labs – known for Artificial Intelligence research and product development – are working to build drones that can play football in the air. They aim to organize a drone football competition. They have before organized a Robots football cup.
There’s also a growing interest in Ethiopia’s drone industry from external investors.
In April this year, Astra Aviation – a Kenyan firm – announced that it is will set up a drone technology company in Ethiopia. The firm will provide drone cargo transport service and a drone technology training academy in partnership with an unnamed local firm.
Astra will start with three cargo drones of various sizes that can deliver mails, parcels and also offer agricultural spray services. The company promised to launch its services before the end of 2018.
But, aside from the imported ones, Ethiopians are also beginning to design and build their own drones. The technology scene in Ethiopia is having a moment and Initiatives to use locally developed drones is one of them.
The main driver is the Ministry of Health, an institution led by one of the youngest ministers in Africa. Dr. Amir Aman, 33 years, is part of the new reformist cabinet that took office in March 2018 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rose to power.
In August 2018, the ministry announced plans to use UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) to deliver medical equipment and supplies to remote areas of Ethiopia. This would help to distribute medicine and blood supplies to areas where access to the road is hard and expensive.
To achieve this, they are undertaking two separate projects; One with Ethiopian Ministry of Science & Technology and another with Zipline – a California-based drone startup that has already done a similar project in Rwanda.
With the Ministry of Science and technology, the agreement is to use drones with five kilograms of carrying capacity. While, with Zipline, they will use drones that can carry up to two kilograms.
As a result, the Ministry of Science & Technology has successfully launched its first drone in mid September 2018. The said drone will carry cargo weighing five kilograms and flying at 5,000m altitude.
They also successfully tested a 5.6 KM range horizontal flight few days after that. The horizontal flight was a circular path with the same starting and ending point. The next testing is expected to be a long-range GPS guided autonomous flight from point A to B.
“Since access to electricity even by health centers is low, storing vaccines in suitable environments has been unsustainable. Drones will be used to transport vaccines from proper storage areas to remote health centers,” Dr. Amir Aman said to the local newspaper.
The drones can fly up to 120 Km an hour and the Ministry is saying that they are ready to manufacture an additional 23 drones in the next six months.
The ministry created a research and technology program by recruiting different talents from universities and schools and assembled 100 innovators for this project. This team did the full design of the drone and assembling. Though, some parts and engines are imported from China and US.
Based on an agreement with the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Science & Technology is anticipated to sign a contract once the pilot project is deemed completely successful by the end of this year.
Afterward, the Ministry of health plans to deliver medical supplies using 24 drones starting from January 2018. Six cities – Addis Ababa, Meqele, Hawasa, Jima, Dire Dewa, and Bahir Dar – will be dispatch centers. But, the drones will operate in an area that covers a 150 KM radius from each dispatch center.
Despite the fact that other African countries like Rwanda, Tanzania, and Mali have used drone technology for medical cargo, Ethiopia will be the first to use a home designed and built drones ones.