Interview: Emmanuel Ezenwere
To what extent will drones impact the Nigerian economy in the near future?
EMMANUEL EZENWERE: First of all, I envision drones will have a large impact on the health sector, making vital medical supplies more accessible to hospitals and primary health care centres that can not adequately store blood, certain vaccines and medicines. The capacity to transport medical supplies on demand from a central storage facility to clinics will greatly improve the provision of services.
Regarding the delivery of Covid-19 vaccines, the use of drones could help solve logistical problems and save time. For example, in the local government area of Nsukka within the state of Enugu, there are 20-50 health clinics. Vaccines must be transported by air from either Lagos or Abuja to a central facility and then distributed to the clinics by road. Distances can be as long as 60 km and would take about 1 hour 15 minutes to deliver by road without traffic, but this can be reduced to 15 minutes with drones. Using drones to deliver vaccines is also considerably more cost-effective and convenient than transporting by road: it is less susceptible to cold chain inefficiencies and there are no traffic jams to contend with.
Indeed, drones can broadly improve logistics in places with high traffic congestion, such as Lagos and other big cities in Nigeria, as they can bypass traffic jams and deliver goods, household items and food supplies within 15 minutes. This will have a great impact on e-commerce.
How developed is the current regulatory framework for drone delivery, and what are the primary challenges facing the industry?
EZENWERE: As we have seen in many other areas, disruptive technologies are always one step ahead of regulation, so there is need to catch up. Nevertheless, some regulations for drone technology are already in place. The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority is the regulatory body in charge of drone licences and airworthiness, and there is a straightforward process to get a licence to safely manoeuvre drones or other aircraft in a shared airspace. This requires a flight demonstration and passing a number of safety tests.
The biggest challenge facing the industry is ensuring that the business is reliable and sustainable, and demonstrating that drones are a more effective mode of transport than other methods. Another key challenge is attracting investment in the industry; however, this is gaining momentum.
What kind of infrastructure is needed to ensure a reliable and safe delivery process, and when will fully autonomous drones be deployed?
EZENWERE: There are two approaches. The first involves remote pilots, or operators, monitoring a number of drones flying in the airspace. The second involves remote licensed pilots, each guiding one drone from point A to point B. The first example is more scalable, while the second is more reliable.
Regarding flying autonomy, I do not think we are ready for drones driven exclusively by software. It is important to begin with human pilots and then gradually infuse more autonomy into the process. We are starting with the safest approach, which uses a remote licensed and trained pilot. We have incorporated computer vision and other collisionavoidance technologies into the drones to ensure that pilots can clearly see the flight paths as well as any objects around the drone.
Of course, we are not only focusing on the hardware, but also on developing very sophisticated and reliable software to guide these drones. From an engineering perspective, we are building safety features to ensure that, in the event of an impending crash, drones can land safely with a parachute. The future and scalability of drone deliveries depends on the safety and reliability of the infrastructure.