Kenya Airways unit pushing use of drones and other emerging aviation technologies

8th September 2023 By: Rebecca Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

Kenya Airways unit pushing use of drones and other emerging aviation technologies

With new technologies promising to transform commercial aviation, Kenyan national flag carrier Kenya Airways is determined to be an active participant in this revolution and so make the East African country a regional and then continental (and perhaps even a global) centre for these technologies. To this end, it has set up a specialised subsidiary company, Fahari Aviation. (Fahari is a kiSwahili word which translates as ‘pride’; Kenya Airways’ slogan is ‘The Pride of Africa’.)

“Fahari Aviation was created to address emerging aviation technologies,” explains Fahari chief Hawkins Musili. “The first technology initiative we are undertaking is drones. And the first step in this initiative is to develop ‘domain expertise’. We want to make this work.”

Drones, as they are popularly called (their formal designation is uncrewed aerial vehicles; the combination of the aircraft themselves with their control systems and communication relays are called uncrewed aerial systems), are a natural first step. There was, he points out, a lot of interest in drones in Kenya Airways’ engineering department; indeed, many of the airline’s engineers had worked on designing and assembling drones when they had been students at university. This led to the creation of a ‘drone team’ of five people in the engineering department. And it was from this cadre that Fahari was subsequently created.

The Big Five

Fahari believes that drone technology can play a key role in helping Kenya’s and Africa’s economic development. Already, the technology is delivering benefits, especially in areas which lack traditional infrastructure development. But the company is also firm that the rolling out of drone technology must be accompanied by the strict maintenance of internationally accredited aviation safety and quality standards.

Drones have five big proven advantages, he points out. These are cost effectiveness, efficiency, workforce safety, quality, and emergency response.

Regarding cost effectiveness, drones are, for example, already an economically and ecologically efficient and sustainable alternative to helicopters for electrical grid transmission line inspections. They can cut inspection and maintenance costs by as much as 50%.

Drones provide efficiency because they can be quickly deployed and provide coverage rapidly, resulting in significantly less time being needed on site. Further, their real-time control and communication allows the scope of the work being carried on by the drone to be adjusted and developed on site.

Workforce safety is the result of the ease of transport of the complete drone system, allowing access to areas that are hard to reach or hazardous. Drones decrease the risk of exposing people to dangerous and/or difficult environments.

Drones provide quality because they allow synchronised data management and analysis and streamlined end-to-end operations. Further, they reduce human error and so improve the accuracy of asset management.

With emergency response, drones ensure higher preparedness and a simplified recovery activation process. They can reduce downtime, because they allow the more effective identification, location and management of defects.

Fast Growing Cub

Currently, Fahari is a small endeavour, with a staff of about 20 and a fleet of about 30 drones of varying sizes and capabilities. But it is growing rapidly and already earning revenues, albeit still less than KSH100-million (or $700 000). The largest group of employees are the drone operators, but there are also some drone instructors, as well as support staff and managers. But the company is still dependent on parent Kenya Airways for key business support functions, such as human resources, purchasing and legal. The plan is to grow Fahari to the stage where it will handle all business functions itself.

The biggest drones currently in the company’s fleet are models from Chinese company DJI, with a payload capacity of either 70 ℓ or 40 kg. Fahari also operates smaller models from the DJI range, the different sizes of drones being used for different applications.

“We have a number of ‘verticals’, or business areas,” reports Musili. “These are surveillance and aerial mapping, industrialised inspections, emergency and rescue services, the agricultural sector, transportation services and various services related to the drones themselves. Some of these verticals are already bringing in revenues, while others are still in development. Currently generating revenues are agriculture, inspections, and surveillance and mapping. Logistics is, for example, still in development. We hope to start logistics operations next year.”

For Fahari, surveillance and aerial mapping covers a wide range of activities – environmental and wildlife conservation, disease control, mining, urban planning, urban security and videography. Industrialised inspections cover powerline and pipeline fault detection, inspections of roads and railways, infrastructure development, construction planning, and equipment inspection. Emergency and rescue services embrace search and rescue, disaster management and emergency response. Services for the agriculture sector use the company’s biggest drones and are focused on crop health surveillance, spraying and spreading of inputs, land monitoring and surveillance, livestock control and pest control.

Transportation services will initially cover medical supply and humanitarian aid supply missions as well as package deliveries. To undertake these missions, the company has a number of projects with several partners to acquire bigger drones, with a payload capacity of up to 200 kg.

Then there are the verticals centred on the drones themselves. These are drone pilot training, a drone advisory and sales centre, and an advisory service for companies and organisations wanting to ‘in-source’ their drone operations. Drone pilot training is really taking off, and Fahari has been able to differentiate itself with the content and quality of its service, he notes.

“Across this spectrum of verticals, we get both mid-term, that is, two- to three-year, contracts and short-term ones,” he explains. “But, with agriculture, there is a difference between the length of the contract and the required execution period in each year. So, for example, an agricultural contract might be for three years, but the execution of the required services might have to be over two periods of two months each during each of those years.”

Setting Boundaries

Safe operation of drones requires that effective air traffic management (ATM) systems for them be developed and put in place. Kenya Airways, of course, is very familiar with the need to comply with ATM, and with the systems necessary to ensure this compliance. Fahari intends to use this knowledge, which encompasses expertise in engineering and information technologies, in safety and security and in risk mitigation, to help develop a scalable ATM system for drones for Fahari’s use in Kenya and, subsequently, other countries.

Such a drone ATM system will have to cover both commercial and recreational drones, and interface seamlessly with ATM systems for crewed aircraft. It will have to be compatible with, and make use of, the existing data communication and tracking technology infrastructure, including cellular and radio frequency communications as well as the Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) system. ADS-B allows an aircraft to use satellite navigation systems to determine its position, and then broadcast it, allowing it to be tracked by ATM agencies. It will also have to be compatible with public safety and the requirements of law enforcement agencies and the armed forces.

Requirements for the safe operation of drones will include the registration of drones and a means of identifying them (crewed civil aircraft carry visible registration numbers or letters). There will also need to be a system in which drones can be authorised to operate in particular airspaces, with real-time tracking of the drones and ‘deconfliction’ between droned and crewed aircraft operations. ‘Geo-fencing’, in which a drone with its own onboard navigation system will have the geographical limits within which it is allowed to operate programmed into that navigational system, will be another necessary drone ATM technology.

One of the advantages possessed by Fahari is that Kenya was one of the first African countries to set up a regulatory framework for drones. This was gazetted in April 2020. But progress in the sector has since been very rapid. Kenya Airways is not the country’s only commercial aviation company actively developing drone operations; specialist air cargo operator Astral Aviation is also doing so and started its first experiments as long ago as 2016. Further, there are specialist Kenyan drone training companies such as Dronespace and Kendrone. Other operators, such as Zipline, are seeking to enter the Kenyan market.

“We have an industry working group, working with the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, to help improve the regulations,” states Musili. “There is a feeling in the industry that the regulations need to be improved, to help legitimate operators. There are other players that are just ignoring the regulations. The regulator is open to amending the regulations. We’ve had a number of sessions with them. It’s still a work in progress but we see the potential to help grow the legitimate industry in the country.”

Spreading Wings

Fahari’s activities are attracting attention from other African countries, especially those around Kenya. The company has already trained non-Kenyan drone operators, and it has ambitions to grow into other African countries. Kenya Airways staff across the continent are already marketing Fahari and its products and services.

“Our initial plan is to expand in stages,” he reports. “First Kenya, then East Africa, then the rest of Africa. But, after that, there’ll be no limit. If the opportunity arises, we’ll expand outside Africa. But, as yet, we have no concrete plans to do so.”

Fahari does not restrict its aspirations to operating drones and providing related services. Its vision and strategy includes ambitions to design and manufacture drones.

“But our approach is very deliberate,” he elucidates. “We’ll first establish capabilities, roles and services appropriate for Kenya. And then manufacture suitable drones, initially using foreign designs, but then our own designs.”

On the Horizon

To reiterate: Fahari was set up to address the range of emerging commercial aviation technologies, not just drones. Beyond drones, Fahari is also looking at what it calls Advanced Air Mobility technologies. These are more usually referred to as Urban Air Mobility (UAM) technologies and popularly called ‘flying taxis’. (The Kenyan company does not use the term UAM because it does not see these technologies as being limited to urban airspaces.) These are usually small, electrically powered, vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft designs.

Fahari has already signed a non-binding Letter of Intent with UAM company Eve Air Mobility, a NYSE-listed subsidiary of Brazilian aerospace group Embraer. (Kenya Airways operates Embraer E190 airliners, so the connection is logical.) Eve Air Mobility is developing a 100 km range eVTOL aircraft, capable of carrying four passengers, plus a pilot, or up to six passengers if operated autonomously.

“We see a lot of use cases for this technology in Kenya,” he affirms. “We’re still doing case studies. We think that eVTOLs could be used for transport between Nairobi and its satellite towns, but also for tourist flights low over our national parks, and medical evacuation, among other things. Fortunately, this technology is new, everywhere. Everyone is still investigating how it’ll work. We have partners for this, and we’re working to see how it’ll benefit Kenya and the region.”