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Unmanned Aerial Systems: An Interview with Rwanda's leading Drone Company

Ahead of Rwanda's hosting of CHOGM and as part of our growing focus on the opportunities and challenges posed by emerging technology, CSG spoke with Ingabire Mamy, Managing Director of Charis UAS.

Charis UAS are proving how effective domestic regulation and the application of new technological solutions are solving ancient security challenges.

FW = Freddie Woolland, Executive Director, CSG IM = Ingabire Mami, Managing Director, Charis UAS

FW = How did Charis UAS begin?

MI = We started off just taking aerial photography of landscapes for our clients that would be added to documentaries and films. We then began to identify other challenges that the population and companies were facing. That’s how we started to work with agricultural and infrastructure companies to see what kind of services we could provide.

FW = You mentioned your work with agricultural companies, Food security is enormously important. How do you add value to agricultural companies?

MI =One thing that we do for the agriculture industry is mount sensors on drones and provide them with accurate maps of their fields, which can aid with crop production by giving them information like how much nitrogen is in their crops or how dry the land is. This helps them provide targeted interventions rather than wasting resources, increasing crop yields. We’re currently finalising a report that contains exact data as to how these yields are improved through our services. We have lots of testimonials from farmers which highlight how this technology has improved their way of working. We are currently not quite at the scale we would like to be at, but we think this study will help us to approach more farmers with our services and we aim to be providing this service to over a million farmers. With those we have worked with so far, the improvement is clear. Compared to the control group in the study to whom we did not provide advisory services, the difference is stark. In some cases we saw increases of up to fifty percent. This could really help to improve food security in Rwanda and across Africa.

FW = Unlike other Commonwealth nations, Rwanda does not have large landowners, and instead many small holding farms, how does that effect your business? And how can you ensure your services reach down to the community level?

MI = We have been in contact with The Ministry of Agriculture, but really, we work directly with farmers, agri-business and infrastructure companies. The reality is that the use of drones is much more effective on a large scale rather than with small holders. That’s good, because in Rwanda we are now going through a process of land-consolidation where instead of having many farmers planting different crops in one place, farmers are now working together. This enhances the scale and makes our products more effective. There are cooperatives to manage these projects and this helps improve their processes e.g waste management. So, we work with these cooperatives of around fifty or so farmers, and we know that when we start to work on a larger scale our technology will be even more impactful.

FW = Mapping has a significant security element to it, allowing entities to be able to plan routes and infrastructure – what role can UAS play in more effective mapping?

MI = We do a lot of mapping, which helps agriculture businesses to provide effective irrigation systems for farmers, as an example. Mapping is also important in construction, as it provides topographical information in order to make the right decisions when planning buildings. It is much faster than other techniques, we can cover 300 hectares a day which is far more than if you were to do it manually. This is very effective in projects such as road construction where you need to map large areas, we mapped 93 kilometres of new roads in Kigali, which we did in three weeks; done manually, that would take up to three or four months. Moreover, we can cover hard to access places like forests or mountains. This is very useful in an industry such as mining, where we can deal with difficult to access places and predict risks such as erosion.

FW = Rwanda's weather and topography means the country is prone to landslides in the flooding season, how can drones help reduce these risks?

MI = We can collect data using our sensors as well as images. This data is then processed, and we can see various different levels and contour information which allows us to predict where risk zones for landslides are. Moreover, this information can allow us to run simulations to determine an area's flood risk. This can help determine whether to build bridges or roads in these areas. The processing phase is the really unique aspect that we bring. Furthermore, one of our projects with the Rwandan Environmental Management Authority involved identifying wetlands on the outskirts of Kigali and helping to advise how they should be managed. We helped cover 13000 hectares and this is being used to think about relocating those who live in dangerous and high-risk areas. This kind of mapping helps our clients to be well informed before they take decisions.

FW = Do you operate outside of Rwanda? Drones are sometimes considered sensitive – does this cause you problems?

MI = We have operations in Gabon, Uganda, Tanzania and now we have opened a new office in Cote d’Ivoire. We have been doing similar agricultural and mapping work, particularly with the Palm Oil industry as there are large areas of palm trees which need mapping. Rwanda is a hub of technology, so that reputation does help us work in other countries that are not so open to drone technology. As a result, when we show people our proof of concept, they usually take us quite seriously and that makes it easy to scale up to other African countries. Being from Rwanda really does come with a good reputation as a result of the culture and strong leadership. The stability and security that the government has created allows businesses to expand to other countries very easily.

FW = How can the private sector contribute to Rwanda’s positive security culture?

MI = The government has created a space in which our drone technology can be used to create a viable business, and so we have to comply with that. This benefits all of us so we are definitely happy to contribute to that. The private sector has to play its role and you do not have to be corrupt to be successful. We have to think about how we can contribute to the building of the nation. This community spirit is part of Rwandan culture – for example we have Umuganda day on the last Saturday of every month where from 7-12am all commercial activity stops, and all the people engage in community work and cleaning. If there is a place that has been affected by a flood, we clean it, clear the roads and help out with other activities. During this time we see the difference we can make to the country and feel a sense of belonging with the country. It is nice to feel a part of the country and the nation. As a business we have to support this culture because the government has created an environment in which our tech-based company can thrive. Moreover, the government allows us a sense of involvement in the legislating process as there are various conferences where private sector companies come together with the government to discuss best practice. This helps us feel a sense of trust between the private sector and the government.

FW = What is your response to people who say that drones are a threat?

MI = There are some countries who are still not open to the use of drones for the purposes we are using them for. However, our work speaks for itself. When different entities take the time to look at the results our work can bring, they think “wow!”. Any tool can be used for bad things. In the same way a knife can be key to cooking a good meal, drones have many great applications. With the right regulations and security measures they can be kept away from bad people. We use drone technology for good, and it has contributed to the economy of the country. There are measures in place to prevent misuse of drones, for example, we use technology that will prevent drones from even taking off if we are near an airport. If they are already in flight, the same technology turns drones away from these areas. Moreover, each week we send out our planned activities to ensure that everything is done legitimately. This is very easy because the whole process is online. There are drones for good and there are drones for bad, but regulation can lead to them being used for the right things.


For more on this subject the Commonwealth Security Review 2020 will cover a special feature on the use of UAS, the opportunities and challenges associated with drones, and how the Commonwealth community can boost UAS related capability across all members states.


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