A voice from above

With innovators across the continent pitching up ideas on how to combat the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, a drone start-up in Rwanda decided to add its voice to the pool of ideas.

Charis UAS decided to use their drones to act as communication devices, disseminating COVID-19 information to members of the public.

The Rwandan government has embraced technological solutions as a way of solving modern problems in their multifaceted forms; so they allowed their citizens to propose ideas for the latest global problem.

Governments, universities, big corporates and small business were rallying together to cobble up quickfire solutions to effectively combat the crisis and avoid deaths and prolonged economic turmoil. Out came futuristic face masks, innovative ventilator machines, food delivery apps, and contact tracing apps and robots.

Drone delivery company Zipline — already saving lives in the land of a thousand hills, through deliveries of emergency medical supplies — simply expanded their services to cover delivery of important COVID-19 implements, like personal protective clothing and testing equipment.

But for one drone services provider, the challenge was not so much as simply expanding its services, as it was charting a new radical direction altogether.

Charis UAS is a drone services company based in Kigali, offering solutions like drone consulting, drone building and system integration, pilot and safety training; and drone maintenance. With 30 employees spread across six countries in Africa, the company has worked on a number of projects in Rwanda, including spraying pesticides using drones on sites to quell mosquito breeding and malaria.

But all their operations came to a screeching halt when Coronavirus began to spread, and unprecedented lock down measures had to be implemented.

“Many projects that were meant to kick off had to be stopped and we lost some revenue,” Charis UAS CEO Eric Rutayisire told Forbes Africa.

When the government and humanitarian organisations sent out SOS calls for innovative solutions to the global disaster, Rutayisire and his team took the challenge to quickly come up with an innovative way of joining the fight against the pandemic.

Their opportunity to help when they noticed that the local police were having trouble sending out information about COVID-19 quickly enough to have a tangible impact.

“We identified gaps in the way information regarding the disease and the restriction guidelines was being passed to the community,” says Rusayire. “The police would drive around in vehicles with loudspeakers communicating to people. So we approached them with the idea of using drones.”

For this to work, the drones had to be slightly modified.

“We fitted the drones with megaphones and built a communication system that linked them to the police walkie-talkies, enabling them to broadcast messages from wherever they were.”

Seeing as this solution came with very little to no human contact – not to mention the novel excitement of people being addressed by a voice whose owner they could not see – the police quickly bought into the idea. Three to four drones would be dispatched daily to various far-flung districts across the country, with each drone operated by a team of two people.

“Our goal was not to make profits but to support the Rwandan government in the fight against this pandemic. Our company got increased visibility, but that was not our main goal,” says Rutayisire.

Clare Akamanzi, CEO of Rwanda Development Board, a government department tasked with integrating all government agencies responsible for the attraction, retention and facilitation of investments in the national economy, expressed her organisation’s gratitude for the solutions that have so far received in their quest to end the COVID-19 conundrum as soon as they can.

“We have seen many exciting innovative responses from Rwandan entrepreneurs that have clearly demonstrated their great capacity to adapt and innovate for emerging situations,” she said.

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