Uganda isn’t likely to come top of mind among the top testing grounds for drones. Despite East Africa having a tag as a leading testing ground for drones in the world.
The first publicly known case of Drone application success in East Africa was in Rwanda. After collaborating with Zipline. A tech company from Silicon Valley. It applied drones to the delivery of blood to its transfusion centres around the country. Zipline also partnered with the Tanzanian government to do the same.
Recently, Nairobi was selected as “one of the launch cities for an ambitious flying cars plan.” This was by McFly.aero. A blockchain project looking to set up the infrastructure for air taxis service in 23 cities.
All these activities make one believe Uganda is lagging behind. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
DroneNerds, a Ugandan startup is pioneering the usage of drones in unconventional areas. The startup describes itself as a “company that seeks to leverage, derisk and leapfrog the positive benefits of drone technology for positive social impact.”
True to their word, DroneNerds has started deploying drones in humanitarian and environment conservation areas.
According to Silver Kayondo, a co-founder, they “have supported humanitarian efforts in Bidi Bidi refugee camp.” The aim is to “use drone technology to monitor conflicts spots between the refugee community and the host community.”
“Once these are identified, we can work with other justice sector players to take tailored mediation centres to the camps. We are also deploying the technology in environmental management and detection of the negative effects of open-pit sand mining around the Lake Victoria basin and the impact on water quality.”
Besides that, the startup deploys drones to support environmental conservation.
“Our aim is to use drones to augment environmental justice enforcement and compliance through sharing evidence-based findings with activists/civil society, regulatory bodies (National Environmental Management Authority) and other stakeholders,” DroneNerds says.
Land and natural resource degradation in Uganda account for over 80% of the annual costs of environmental degradation. This arises from activities such as deforestation, artisan mining and air pollution. Yet, it is hard to check the degradation of the natural resources like forests. Partly due to inaccessibility and the costs involved.
DroneNerds says that they are presenting an “effective tool for environmental monitoring and enforcement” because of its ability to “reach areas that would be otherwise inaccessible or cost-prohibitive.”
The startup is not the first to go in this direction.
In 2013, the Guardian reported that Drones were being used in game reserves in South Africa to check poachers. “We bought the equipment to try and combat Rhino poaching before they are all gone,” Anton Kieser told the Guardian. Elsewhere, campaigners used drones in the fight against whaling in Japan.
So far, DroneNerds has kicked off its efforts with a pilot project aimed at conserving the environment. It is aimed at “examining the implications of sand mining on the ecosystem around Kampala’s wetland system.”
The startup adds that; “Under this pilot project, we discovered that open pit sand mining in Kampala not only causes environmental degradation through destruction of vegetative cover, but also leaves behind open pits which are breeding grounds for mosquitoes that spread malaria.”
Aside from environmental conservation, DroneNerds is also using drones to “leapfrog over poor infrastructure that characterizes most parts of rural Uganda, and specifically, refugee host communities.”
It has so far “worked on a special project in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp, the world’s largest refugee camp located in Northwestern Uganda.”
This settlement covers a geographical area of about 250 square kilometres. It mainly hosts refugees from Southern Sudan. The number estimated by the American Refugee Committee is about 270,000 refugees.
Due to this population surge, there have emerged some conflicts between the refugees and the host community.
To identify and seek resolution of such conflict, DroneNerds worked on an independent project to identify the major conflict causes between the refugees and the host community using drone monitoring and reporting systems along the potential conflict spots.
Other areas the startup is venturing drone usage into is photography/videography. Using them for news, events, leisure and hospitality as well as tourism.
Agriculture is another area. With plans to “deploy drone technology in soil and field analysis, drone-planting analysis, crop spraying, crop monitoring, irrigation and crop health assessments.”
Sports is also on their radar. The startup believes that Drones are “useful in live sports coverage, sports commentary, broadcasting, training, crowd control and security, sports photography and sports performance analysis.”
When it comes to health, DroneNerds hopes to build on the success stories in Rwanda, Tanzania and other African countries where drones have been used to deliver medical supplies. “We seek to build on these success stories to provide solutions that can solve problems such as delays in delivery of essential drugs and medicines.”
In law, they plan to offer more of consultation services. Given that their Co-Founder, Silver Kayondo is one of the “leading authority on drone law in Uganda.” A legal Associate at Bowmans Uganda, Silver also has a Masters of Law from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Chances are also that you won’t talk about Drones in Uganda and his name fails to come up.
Beside DroneNerds, Jumia Food Uganda tried using Drones last year. But their efforts were intercepted by the government. “We tried to launch limited delivery with drones in Kampala but CAA just made it legal to operate drones in November 2017,” Ron Kawamara, MD Jumia Food East Africa says.
“The catch however is that drones only allowed with on-sight operation. In other-words the operator must maintain visual contact with the drone which would not work for us. Rwanda has taken a different approach and we see companies and NGOs using drones to reach remote areas to deliver lifesaving cargo. Jumia Kenya will also try drone deliveries later this year .”
With a legal background, Silver fully understands the regulatory framework around the usage of drones in Uganda. Yet he points out “the unpredictable regulatory environment” as one of the challenges they’re facing. “Currently, importing a drone requires clearance by URA, CAA and Ministry of Defence,” Silver says.
“In my view as a lawyer servicing the drone industry and as a co-founder of a drone start-up, the regulations do not draw any distinctions between military drones, commercial drones and hobby drones. Then, there is general lack of awareness of the service capability of commercial drones.”
When Jumia Food tried to inquire about the possibility of using drones through their legal representative, they got in return a lengthy procedure. An email we got an opportunity to look at required Jumia Food to first “obtain a letter of No-Objection from the line ministry to use Remotely Piloted Aircraft Technology in the planned activity.”
Then, “seek a letter of No-Objection from the Chief of Defence Forces(CDF) which may involve security vetting.” And finally “fill in an Authorization Request Form and submit it together with the letters of no objection to CAA.”
The email also noted that “currently drone operations clearance is limited to Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) operations only.” According to CAA, the body is currently “only granting permission for usage of drones with Visual Line of Sight (VLOS).” Those that can be seen while being used.
But CAA says that “by the end of 2018, Uganda will have regulations that clearly separate and categorize drones from Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS).”
This is because it deems the use of drones likely to cause “possible dangers” which include “accidental collision” of drones with “passenger aircraft and misuse including breach of national and other people’s privacy.”
The authority also admits that “there has been an influx of drones into the country, many of them have unfortunately been held up at customs at Entebbe International Airport pending fulfilment of security clearance and other procedural requirements.”
Aside from regulatory challenges, Silver pointed out that they have a challenge of getting access to funding. “The major challenge for any start-up is financing,” Silver said. “There are not many grants and VCs targeting drone technology in Uganda. So, growth is limited.”Despite the fact that “the market potential is enormous.”
So far, Silver says that they have been able to secure some clients and partners to work with. “For instance, we are in talks with the Uganda Insurance Association for deployment of drones in insurance claims assessments.”
While as Ron was going to procure his drones from Flirtey, a Reno, Nevada-based drone delivery company, DroneNerds procures theirs from Dji, a Shenzen-based technology company.
DroneNerds recently completed formal incorporation as a company in 2018. Though it was set up in 2017 and has been engaging with drone flying and repairs since 2013.