Against the odds: Bet you've never heard of the world's drone capital
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Astral Aerial, a subsidiary of Kenya-based cargo airline Astral Aviation, is building up an impressive fleet of drones to carry cargo.
Its line-up is led by the Flyox, which has a range of 1,300 km and can hold a 2-tonnes payload, but a delay in regulatory approval is keeping them on the runway.
Last year, Astral ordered two Lucas F250 drones for exclusive operations in Kenya. It has folding wings, can fly up to 10 hours at a cruise speed of 150kph and can carry Euro-pallet-sized cargo of up to 250kg. The plan is to use it to move goods to remote locations as well as for short-range deliveries.
Astral will use drones for a mix of applications, including aerial surveillance – but cargo is set to become a major strand of the operation.
Sanjeev Gadhia, CEO of Astral Aviation, said: “The idea of using drones for long-range delivery was born out of a gap in the capability of manned aircraft to reach remote regions due to infrastructural challenges.
“In addition, there is a clear need for last–mile delivery and, with the fast development of airspace management technology, becoming a cargo drone operator is a natural progression.”
The company has filed for approval of the various drones it wants to deploy to carry cargo, but has been held back by administrative delays in finalising regulations for commercial drone operations in Kenya.
Mr Gadhia said the plan was to put the Flyox on longer routes within Kenya before expanding to cross-border point-to-point flights in eastern Africa, and finally to strategic locations across the continent. Primarily to carry freight from a central hub to remote areas, targeting the agriculture, oil & gas, freight and e-commerce sectors.
“The ideal plan would be to roll out the Flyox project in Kenya by Q1 20 and across different regions by Q2 20. Once this is successfull, we should be able to test it across East African countries by Q2 21,” said Mr Gadhia.
The regulatory bottleneck has ensnared not only the approval of Astral’s drones for cargo operations but also plans for specific projects. Kenya Post and Astral are planning a three-month trial for parcel delivery within a 90km radius which was supposed to start last year. And in partnership with a UN agency, Astral wants to run a pilot project to airdrop up to 1,500kg of critical humanitarian supplies.
Mr Gadhia hopes the Kenyan authorities will finally clear Astral’s drones this month, but hinted that further delay could prompt the company to look elsewhere to get airborne.
“We find there is a lot of interest generated in drones across the region,” he added.
Currently, Astral employs three drone pilots for both fixed-wing and multi-rotor drones, Mr Gadhia said.
“As our operations are still small-scale, owing to the regulatory environment in Kenya, we do not have a need for a large team. However, once we get drone operator approval, we will have to recruit more pilots. Currently, there are very few trained RPAS pilots in Kenya, owing to the lack of RPAS training institutions, therefore, they are not easy to find.”
And he revealed: “We have plans to establish East Africa’s first RPAS academy, where we will train and licence drone pilots ourselves.
“This will open a world of opportunity for our youth, not just in our organisation, but in related fields as well. Having our own training institution will give us an obvious advantage in getting qualified pilots.”