Rwanda: Drone Experts Root for Improved Air Traffic Control

Participants at the Africa Drone Forum inspect one of the drones by Zipline at the exhibition.
5 February 2020

In an era of increased use of drones and ever-growing air traffic congestion, there is an urgent need for the creation of a seamless sky to ensure successful deployment of manned and unmanned air vehicles, drone experts have said.

They made the case during a demo ahead of the inaugural Lake Kivu drone challenge in Karongi District yesterday.

The event started with a showcase of 11 drone companies that will be participating in the competition.

Unmanned aircraft system Traffic Management (UTM), according to Kelia Mugenzi, an operator at Leapr labs - a local robotics company -streamlining airspace usage would enable airports, cities, law-enforcers and drone users to better manage active drones.

She said there was a need for an air traffic management eco-system for autonomously controlled operations of Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs).

Captain Hastings Jailos, head of flight safety at Malawi Civil Aviation Authority, contends that UTM solution will help address the challenges of UAS integration into the airspace.

Jailos also doubles as project manager for drone integration into Malawian airspace.

George Mulamula, World Bank Group government's liaison on the Africa Drone Forum, pointed out that today aircraft are guided safely by air controllers communicating with pilots via radio, a system known as air traffic management (ATM).

"But this point-to-point, line-of-sight communication between an operator and an aircraft is the industry's standard mode of operation," he said.

However, he added, it is expected that the growth of commercial air traffic will ultimately overtake the capacity of a human-centred system.

"As unmanned and self-piloted operations continue to multiply, ATM systems will need to shift to a more scalable model, to a digital platform that can monitor and manage increased activity. This system is called (UTM)." He said.

Melissa Rusanganwa, head of Public Relations at Zipline Rwanda, echoed the same sentiments, arguing that UTM can provide a more digital, interoperable and scalable approach.

"As an operator who has been in this sector, one of the focus points I would want us to discuss in a forum like this would be how to integrate drone operators into the airspace, the fact that operators have to understand that they are operating safely,"

For World Bank regional director, Franz Drees-Gross, if practised, UTM means aircraft will no longer have to speak to a single entity, such as an assigned air traffic controller.

Instead, he is quoted saying, "it will be able to communicate freely with multiple service suppliers. These suppliers will be held to relevant safety, security and performance standards by authorities."

Additionally, even though the transition is gradual, it is one that is important for the global aviation system's future viability.

Mugenzi said there was need for improvements in matters related to air space access, provision of automated flight authorization, monitoring the presence of drone in the low altitude airspace and ensuring there are no conflicts with manned aircraft and airspace management which would include creating flight paths for UAVs.

Drone forum kicks off

Meanwhile, the Africa Drone Forum gets underway in Kigali on Wednesday, drawing up to 1000 participants from 23 countries and the 11 drone companies scheduled to participate in the Lake Kivu Challenge.

The forum brings together leading figures in drone technology from private sector and airspace regulators to discuss what is possible for the future of drones in Africa. It is the brainchild of a partnership between the Government of Rwanda and the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Representatives of drone companies say that partnerships and investors are among the things they expect from the forum.

Serge Tuyihimbaze, Managing Director at Leapr Labs, told The New Times that there was a lot to take home from the three-day forum.

"We are looking to sealing a number of partnerships at the forum," he said, adding that "we have already forged partnership with one of the drone companies that have come for the Challenge."

He declined to name the company in question but said the two firms will be signing an agreement soon.

Tuyihimabaze also said the forum was an opportunity to acquire new expertise and to share experiences.

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