Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) company Falcon Drones Technology and Nairobi-based cargo carrier Astral Aviation reached an agreement for the purchase of two of Falcon’s Lucas-F250 drones with options for 10 more next year, just as the Kenyan government has recently put the brakes on drone legalisation.
The drones, manufactured by Dubai-based Falcon, have an endurance of 10 hours, a range 1,500 kilometres, a cruising speed of 150 kph with a cargo capacity of about 250 kgs. They also benefit from a capacity for EURO pallet dimensions, folding wings, a folding tail, fully autonomous takeoff and landing and Waypoint Navigation and landing.
But Kenya’s National Assembly last month quashed regulations that would have legalised Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and enabled commercial use of drones in the country, effectively shutting drone operators out in the cold, at least for now.
Astral Aviation had already put structures in place and applied for a licence from the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) to open the first drone academy in the country.
“The move by MPs has had a negative effect on the budding industry as everything has come to a standstill due to the lack of clarity on the status of the law,” said Astral Aviation founder and CEO Sanjeev Gadhia, quoted in a report in Kenya’s Business Daily.
“Companies founded on the regulations already have operational capabilities but are now incurring losses due to the hold. They have already incurred expenses in training their staff,” Gadhia said.
The KCAA is said to be in talks with Parliament on the way forward following the quashing of the regulations. A number of firms had started developing UAV operations after the regulations were approved by the National Security Advisory Committee and later gazetted by the attorney-general.
The regulations were to be approved by a parliamentary committee before coming into effect but they were turned down on security and other grounds which MPs said had not been addressed well by the KCAA, the report said.
If KCAA approves the setting up of a school by Astral, Kenya will become the second country in Africa after South Africa to have such a facility.
The use of drones in Astral’s network could fulfil a regional connectivity role for the transportation of smaller amounts of cargo over short distances and also fulfil a need for last-mile delivery, the carrier said.
Gadhia, speaking at the Farnborough International Airshow yesterday, said: “The Falcon Drones technology is truly groundbreaking. At Astral, we are delighted to have secured this order with exclusivity in Kenya. It brings with it the exciting prospect of further expansion in the wider East Africa region.”
Unmanned aircraft could represent “an opportunity to get into Africa’s vast and untapped air cargo markets,” he added, noting that the untapped Kenya market alone was valued by the World Trade Organisation at USD 3.14 billion.
Gadhia said his company was eyeing integrating drone technology into its current fleet of traditional freighters, once it obtains regulatory approval. Gadhia remains upbeat on gaining approval, saying that within the next two years Astral’s drone network will be operating cross-border, before covering the entire continent by 2022.
The company’s drone network would be phased affair, focusing first on domestic, then regional, and finally intra-African deliveries – all based out of a Nairobi drone hub.
The domestic focus will be on aid and relief, e-commerce, postal networks, medical deliveries, schoolbooks and the oil, gas and mining sectors, Gadhia said.
The second phase, focusing on the eastern African region, will focus on point-to-point and last mile delivery between “strategic drone hubs”. The third and final phase will extend the range of phase two to include strategic locations across the African continent.
Kamel Alzarka, chairman and founder of Falcon Drones, said: “This is a very exciting opportunity for Falcon Drones and we are thrilled to have signed this letter of intent. We very much look forward to building a strong relationship with Astral Aviation in the coming years.”
Aside from the Falcon drones, Astral is also studying the amphibious FlyOx Cargo Drone which has a 1,200 km range and 1,850 kg payload, as well as the Natilus, which can carry a 2,317 kg payload with a 1,850 km range.
Currently Astral operates cargo services throughout Africa, as well as connecting these markets to European hubs such as London Stansted and Liège utilising a fleet consisting oof B747-400F, B727-200F, DC9-34F and Fokker 27 m500F freighters.