Rwanda is starting the ball rolling on creating the world’s first “drone-port.” Last month the small East African country was chosen by renowned British architect Norman Foster and fellow investors as a test ground to set up “cargo drone routes capable of delivering urgent and precious supplies to remote areas on a massive scale.” The effects could be transformative, leapfrogging the lack of land-based infrastructure, so Rwanda’s government has gotten on board. Rwandan daily the New Times reported on Thursday that the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority (RCAA) is in the process of drafting drone regulations that will soon be submitted to the Cabinet for approval, and made operational by 2016.
“An ‘infrastructural leap’ is essential using drone technology and clean energy systems to surmount the challenges of the future,” Foster said. He added that Rwanda’s challenging geographical landscape (the country is known as the “land of a thousand hills”) had made it an ideal testing ground and model for the drone-port project.
The drone proposal– by architecture firm Foster + Partners, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, and its linked Afrotech initiative– stated that “Specialist drones can carry blood and life-saving supplies over 100km [60 miles] at minimal cost, providing an affordable alternative that can complement road-based deliveries.” According to the Guardian, the pilot project is slated to begin next year, with three “drone-port” buildings due for completion by 2020. The drones will be able to cover almost half of Rwanda’s countryside. The project envisions them having a 10-foot wingspan, with the capacity to carry 22-pound deliveries. Drones with twice that wingspan and 10 times that carrying capacity are planned to follow by 2025.
According to the proposal, Foster’s facility will have two parallel networks; one for medical and emergency supplies, and another for commercial purposes that will transport crucial larger payloads such as spare parts, electronics and e-Commerce. Subsequent phases of the project could see about 40 drone ports across the continent, with Rwanda’s location considered ideal for easier expansion to neighboring countries and the entire continent.
The drone-port will also catalyze the creation of a surrounding commercial hub, including a digital fabrication shop, an e-Commerce trading hub, a post and courier room, and a health clinic.
The RCAA aims to ensure that drone technology is adopted in a secure, safe, and efficient manner. “As soon as the regulations are in force, Rwanda will be able to regulate any projects related to remotely piloted aircraft systems including and not limited to drone operations and all infrastructure required,” said spokesman Tonny Barigye.
Rwanda’s friendly stance towards drones is a pioneering one in Africa. By contrast, Kenya banned drones in January, largely due to enduring fears of al-Shabaab terrorists using them to launch attacks. Potential users in Kenya now need a permit from the defense ministry – a lengthy process full of red tape and requiring about $1,000 in fees. And in July South Africa enacted strict drone regulations, including that no drone will be allowed to take off without a permit, licenses, and the operator being cleared, and that no drones be operated above 400 feet or flown over any person within a 50 meter distance.
But if Rwanda’s drone-port proves successful in its humanitarian and/or commercial functions, then other countries in Africa and the rest of the world will likely re-examine their own drone regulations. So we may see many more drone-ports spring up.