Tanzania’s Homegrown Drone Industry Takes Off on Bamboo Wings

Post Syndicated from Evan Ackerman and Michael Koziol original https://spectrum.ieee.org/robotics/drones/tanzanias-homegrown-drone-industry-takes-off-on-bamboo-wings

Bamboo drones are just one way that local companies hope to meet Tanzania’s needs

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It’s late afternoon on the shores of Tanzania’s Lake Victoria, and Bornlove Ntikha is building a drone out of bamboo. One large piece forms the body of the drone, and smaller crosspieces are secured with zip ties. The motors at the ends of the crosspieces are held in place with 3D-printed mounts; more zip ties and tape keep the battery and electronics in place. With a small handsaw, Ntikha trims some bamboo twigs down to size. He’s decided that his drone needs longer landing legs.

“In Swahili we call it ‘mianzi drone,’ for the Swahili word for bamboo,” Ntikha says. “We built it two days ago, in two hours. With controls, motors, receiver, power system, GPS, 3D-printed parts—it’s about US $150. And bamboo is around for free.”

The bamboo grows at the Malaika Beach Resort in Mwanza, near the southern tip of Lake Victoria. Mwanza is the second-largest city in Tanzania (after the business hub, Dar es Salaam), and its economy is heavily dependent on the lake for fishing and trade. But moving goods among towns on the lake’s winding shores and numerous islands is often slow and inefficient. So in late 2018, the Tanzanian government and the World Bank held the first Lake Victoria Challenge (LVC) to explore how autonomous cargo drones might help things. The event brought together academics, industry leaders, and East African government officials to attend presentations and watch flight demonstrations.

A handful of European drone companies exhibited their machines, all of them very capable, all built with custom hardware and software and encased in sleek fiberglass and carbon fiber. But these drones are too expensive for East Africa. Here the drones need to be cheap, both to build and to repair—and that means bamboo and zip ties instead of fiberglass and carbon fiber.

Ntikha’s flight wasn’t part of the official LVC program, but he came to show what a local drone enthusiast can do with simple materials. While government regulators attended a cocktail party hosted by the LVC, Ntikha’s bamboo drone tentatively took to the air and hovered. The handful of onlookers might not be writing the rules, but they’re the ones figuring out how drones will work in Tanzania, on the ground and in the air.

Ntikha’s rustic-looking drone actually uses an advanced feature called an unmanned traffic management system, which broadcasts the drone’s position to make it safer to fly in crowded airspaces. Most commercial drones don’t yet have this capability, but Ntikha is prepared for a day when his country’s skies will be crowded.

That day may come soon. All across Tanzania, from the shores of Lake Victoria to the bustling streets of Zanzibar City, on the largest of the islands off Tanzania’s eastern coast, local entrepreneurs are building a drone industry that meets the needs of East Africans. These pioneers have to overcome immense hurdles in a country where regulation is still being developed, parts are hard to come by, and expensive drones can seem out of reach. The rewards, however, may be worth the effort: If the country’s drone revolution takes off, Tanzanians will manage their farmland, plan their cities, and upgrade their infrastructure in ways that aren’t even on the radar for the United States and Europe. Tanzania could very well become a leader in the drone world.

Freddie Mbuya’s house in the Mikocheni neighborhood of Dar es Salaam is hard to miss: An exterior wall facing the road is completely covered in a mural depicting Mbuya and his family as human-size meerkats. From that house he runs Uhurulabs, a nonprofit organization that enables Mbuya to pursue his wide-ranging technological interests. “Uhuru in Kiswahili means ‘freedom’ or ‘independence,’ ” Mbuya says. “Uhurulabs is a place where people can do innovative things, and perhaps make money. The goal is not to make money but to push the Tanzanian technical envelope. And our focus right now is on 3D printing, blockchain, and drones.”

In Mbuya’s home office and workshop, drones and drone components cover the furniture, fill the corners, and hang from the ceiling. “I truly think that drones could have the potential to be a game changer in Africa,” he says. “Drones are definitely allowing us to leapfrog past traditional technologies, and it’s being done out of necessity.”

He sees the biggest potential in land surveying and says that only about 3 percent of Africa is mapped using techniques other than satellites. “Given that land is probably our second most important asset—after our people—it would be important to actually know where things are, and who owns what, to start getting more value out of it.” For example, many farmers don’t know the exact extent of their land, which makes it harder to buy it or sell it, or to take out loans to improve it.

Up until now, surveying has been done by crewed aircraft. In 2004, when aircraft were used to survey the island of Zanzibar—part of an archipelago that forms a semiautonomous region of Tanzania comprising nearly 2,500 square kilometers—the effort cost $2.5 million. “About two years ago, we said, we can do that for much cheaper, using drones!” Mbuya says, laughing. “We did it. And our cost was between $250,000 and $300,000.” While Mbuya says his team “cheated” by using university students, he adds that these students learned valuable skills, and that some of them, now graduated, are doing commercial drone work.

With its low-flying drones, the Zanzibar Mapping Initiative (ZMI) also provided images of much higher resolution than crewed planes or satellites can manage. Another advantage of using drones is that clouds never get in the way, potentially obscuring the ground you want to map. Other survey projects in Tanzania have taken note and followed suit. In Dar es Salaam, several nonprofits are collaborating on the Ramani Huria (“our map” in Swahili) project, which is using drones and a community-driven mapping system called OpenStreetMap to map the entire city in unprecedented detail.

Communities have rallied around the Ramani Huria project because the government’s standard ways of tracking changes in the city can’t keep up with reality. The population of some Dar es Salaam neighborhoods is growing at a rate of 20 percent per year, with new residents building informal dwellings out of whatever materials they can find. In the Ramani Huria project, drones can fly over neighborhoods as often as every six months, creating maps to help the city government understand how neighborhoods are growing, where services are needed, and what areas are at risk for seasonal flooding.

Access to mapping drones is still a challenge. The ZMI used eBee drones from the Swiss company SenseFly, which cost between $12,000 and $25,000 each. “It’s an incredibly powerful platform,” says Ivan Gayton, who manages the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap project in Dar es Salaam, but for most local groups and entrepreneurs “it’s really not within reach.”

Gayton says hobby drones, such as DJI’s Mavic or Parrot’s Bebop, are more realistic for projects in Tanzania. They’re not quite as reliable or as capable as the professional gear, but they’re good enough, and the price is right. “We can put a platform together for $600 that’s ample for the mapping we want to do here,” Gayton says. And it’s not just the upfront cost that’s an issue, he notes. When an eBee gets damaged, there’s no way to repair it in Tanzania—it has to be shipped back to Switzerland to be fixed, which is costly and slow. Gayton says Africans require more open and DIY drone technologies. “Go to the market and watch how they’re repairing cellphones,” he says. “We rip things apart to get at the guts, and we repair them. Proprietary closed black boxes just don’t work in Africa.”

That’s why today’s consumer-grade machines are the best tool for the job. But even the hobby drones can be expensive: Parrot’s latest model of its Bebop costs $600. DJI’s latest models of its popular Phantom and Mavic drones both retail at $1,500.

Fortunately, Leka Tingitana is here to help. As managing director of the nonprofit organization Tanzania Flying Labs, Tingitana teaches Tanzanians how to fly drones and helps them develop successful business models. “If you cannot afford a drone, it should not be a barrier for you to run a drone business,” says Tingitana. Tanzania Flying Labs runs a training program for aspiring drone operators; people who complete the program are eligible to borrow the lab’s drones for their work projects.

One of the lab’s graduates is Rose Funja, the founder and managing director of Agrinfo. Her startup supplies information to farmers, including highly detailed aerial images. “Whenever we talk to the farmers, we don’t talk about the [drone] technology that we’re using,” she says. “It’s about the value that we can bring.”

On a sunny day in November, she takes a borrowed Parrot Bebop drone to Hashim Jabil’s mango farm in the Mbopo district north of Dar es Salaam. Standing between squat mango trees, Funja flies her drone back and forth over the farm, occasionally pausing it over points of interest. She uses the onboard camera to capture the farm’s finer details by hovering only a dozen meters or so above the ground.

Jabil says his 6-hectare (14-acre) farm is a typical size for Tanzania. The mango trees, laden with ripe fruit, seem spaced out at random. Jabil says drone surveying has great value: “If I’m applying for a loan to do development on my farm, or if I want to sell the farm, it can help me.” In fact, without a map showing the farm’s exact size and boundaries, a farmer can’t apply for a deed.

Another Tanzania Flying Labs offshoot is Drone Wings, a startup based in Zanzibar that uses DJI Phantoms and SenseFly eBees to create aerial maps for use in city planning. Drone Wings cofounder Abdul-rahman Mohammed Hafidh points out a construction site on the main road that connects the State University of Zanzibar to the old city of Stone Town. Every year, the heavy rains of April and November flood the road, forcing students to take a circuitous route that turns a 30-minute drive into a 4-hour journey. But now, thanks in part to images and data from Drone Wings, the Zanzibar government is upgrading the section of the road that experiences the worst of the flooding.

Drone Wings wants to map the other roads and numerous homes on Zanzibar that flood during the rainy seasons. For Hafidh, the imaging Drone Wings can provide is key for proper planning—which, in turn, is the key to “a sustainable, resilient city.”

Video: IEEE Spectrum
The Complete Picture: Our 360 video about the drone startups working in Tanzania shows the work they’re doing from every angle.

Africa has a history of rapidly adopting emerging technologies. Perhaps the best example of this technological leapfrogging is mobile money, an industry that initially sprung up because people lacked access to brick-and-mortar banks. Now, mobile payment companies link together the African economy to an extent not seen in the United States and Europe.

For aerial surveys, Tanzanians have already leapfrogged past crewed aircraft to drones. The organizers of the Lake Victoria Challenge hope that drones can also help Africans dodge an infrastructure obstacle by replacing the motorbikes that are currently used on rough roads to make deliveries.

The LVC organizers say that the Lake Victoria region offers a particularly compelling use case for drones, because the millions of people living on the lake’s shores and its nearly 1,000 islands have very limited transportation options. The few thousand fishermen who live on Juma Island offer a typical example. By motorboat, it takes the better part of an hour to travel the 20 kilometers from the island to Mwanza. But most of the island’s residents take boats that they must paddle themselves, making a visit to the mainland a tiring all-day affair.

To show how drones can help, the LVC features a flight demonstration by the Swiss startup Wingtra. On the second day of the gathering, a delegation of LVC participants visits Juma, traveling by motorboat across choppy waves. Weather conditions on the lake can be variable and treacherous; shortly after the motorboat lands, an afternoon storm batters the island. Waterspouts twist across the surface of the lake, while the island’s uneven dirt paths turn to rapids.

After the weather clears, the LVC participants and curious villagers stand on the beach to watch the Wingtra drone finish its 20-minute flight from the Malaika Beach Resort. The brilliant orange drone settles neatly on the sand, showing off its capacity for vertical takeoff and landing. One of the goals of the LVC is to determine whether small cargo drones can deliver urgently needed shipments—maybe lifesaving medicines—to Juma and other islands in Lake Victoria. Existing drones can carry only a few kilograms of cargo, and the safety of their autonomous flights must still be proven.

In the second LVC, coming this November, drone companies will compete in a number of challenges: They’ll simulate the delivery of emergency medical supplies, retrieve medical samples from remote clinics, and survey some of the lake’s tiny islands. But the biggest challenge for the participating European and American companies will be proving that their drones can be useful beyond the managed environment of the LVC. If they aim to deploy their drones commercially in Tanzania, they need to be sure that when drones break down, local operators can repair them with parts on hand.

In the best-case scenario, the government officials and drone companies gathered at the LVC will pay attention to Ntikha and his bamboo drone. For Tanzania to truly make its mark as a world leader in drone innovation, the players in this young industry will need to have a keen eye for the kinds of technologies that work best for the country. They’ll also have to decide which use cases are the most valuable. Even if drone delivery gets most of the attention and government support, it may be that Tanzanian startups can benefit more people with their aerial surveying, from small farmers to university students who just want to get to class on time. 

As Ntikha’s bamboo drone takes flight one evening at the LVC, only a handful of people are on hand to watch the contraption lurch into the air before finally hovering steadily a few feet off the ground. The demonstration isn’t part of the official program—most LVC attendees are off enjoying a cocktail. It’s a harsh reminder that, no matter how much work Tanzanian drone pilots put into their projects, ultimately it’s the government regulators who will decide what kinds of drone operations are allowed. Nobody is quite sure what will happen next. But many locals are hopeful that people like Ntikha will demonstrate the potential of an indigenous drone ecosystem, and that it won’t just be Western companies that define the future of drones in Africa.