Airbus seeks to set up high-altitude drone base in Kenya

When it comes to drone technology, East Africa is aiming for the stratosphere.

They did it in Rwanda recently, when the courtship that was announced in 2020 took a huge step ahead with successful tests recently.

Kenya must have seen this happening and felt left out. The country has the fastest long-distance runners in the world; they do not take kindly to being left out so.

So last week the Kenyan government hosted a High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) manufacturer of their own. Senior managers from AALTO, a subsidiary of European Aerospace company Airbus, arrived in Kenya to prepare the groundwork for the exploration of opportunities in which AALTO can set an operating base for its Zephyr HAPS unmanned aerial aircraft.

Operating on solar energy, the Zephyr is a world-record-breaking high altitude drone capable of flying continuously for months at a time, at an altitude of around 70,000ft, above weather and conventional air traffic.

The drone remains the only fixed-wing HAPS to have demonstrated day/night longevity in the stratosphere, besides providing imagery using the Airbus OPAZ earth observation payload, or acting as a tower in the sky, capable of providing direct-to-device connectivity with a reach of up to 250 terrestrial towers in difficult mountainous terrain.

While its solar panels keep the drone powered during the day, it also charges secondary batteries, which will take over power duties during the night.

Zephyr relies on solar energy, with secondary batteries charged in daylight to power overnight flight.

In reality though, HAPS drones are also spy drones which can be used for military and defence applications. But here we like them for their civilian capabilities across government, aviation, meteorology and telecoms.

“A key enabler of our roll-out of services is securing AALTOPORTS, bases from which we launch and land Zephyr missions,” AALTO said.

“Over recent months, we have been deeply encouraged by the collectively positive responses to our proposal to create the first AALTOPORT in Kenya.

“Over the coming weeks, AALTO will continue to engage with its key stakeholders across the country as it seeks to implement an attractive framework for stratospheric service to operate within and external to Kenya in 2024. Working together with our partners, we look forward to Taking Kenya Stratospheric.”

The Laikipia area, about 265km north of the capital Nairobi in central Kenya, has been selected as the first operating hub for the Zephyr platform by AALTO, pending approvals by the government.

In choosing Kenya, AALTO said it considered several factors, including the availability of open, flat space to land and launch the craft, in an airspace that is relatively light on traffic; and favourable weather conditions.

The operators also considered the number of months in a year during which the landings and take-offs can be carried out effectively, with Kenya deemed suitable for up to ten months a year.

Apparently, the Zephyr HAPS needs significant swathes of space for take-off and landing, as it lifts off and lands in circular motions like a falcon. As the manufacturer explains, a base requires several of these landing pads because of the effect of wind on the lightweight craft, hence the demand for a sizeable expanse of land.

On the ground, the base will also have an assembly line for the drones with a production capacity of between 50 and 100 aircraft, an operations or control centre and a customer care facility.

AALTO reckons Kenya will provide a perfect spot for all these requirements, including providing skilled labour for AALO’s commercial operations.  

The AALTO team also met representatives from the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA), Kenya Airports Authority (KAA), the Meteorological Department, defence agencies, the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA) and mobile network operators; all of whom hold the potential to provide a client base for the manufacturer.

AALTO estimates that one drone can cover 7,500 square kilometres on its own, with Zephyr holding the over 25-day record for the longest endurance in the air.

AALTO is also looking to set up bases in Asia and South America.

“We are looking for locations that have a good combination of weather, ease of doing business and a pool of resources of highly talented people to fly and operate the aircraft,” said AALTO CEO, Samer Halawi.

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