The UAV Air Bridge Goes To Africa

Daniel Ronen briefing Sec State Penny Mordaunt on the UAVAid drone system

Daniel Ronen

The UAV air bridge project took a major step forward in November 2018 with a trial deployment of the UAVAid Hansard system, to Malawi. The drone platform was deployed with a team of operators and engineers to the Kasungu Aerodrome (a humanitarian drone testing corridor managed by UNICEF), with the goal of further understanding and preparing for the practical constraints and issues related to operating long-range cargo delivery drones in remote areas with limited backup infrastructure.

With its high poverty rates, poor infrastructure and access approvals in place for the Kasungu drone corridor, the UK DFID priority country of Malawi was an ideal location for a ‘use case’ trial deployment. The team deployed to the aerodrome, together with the aircraft and support equipment necessary to complete a trial programme.

The logistics fell into place with everything arriving on time and intact, with UNICEF representatives on hand to provide local assistance as necessary. The team established base in the Kasungu aerodrome building waiting room, which served for indoor maintenance, aircraft control, local air traffic control and storage. Importantly, it gave clear sight of the runway apron and the runway itself.

We had been granted special flight permissions by the Malawian CAA as the largest UAS yet to operate from the drone corridor. A significant milestone in itself. We are grateful for the assistance provided by the local UNICEF team in facilitating with these special permissions, as well as the support and engagement of the CAA itself.

So what could possibly go wrong…?

With the purpose of the programme to ‘dry run’ the practical deployment of the equipment and systems in a use-case context, we were looking to identify through experience the key unexpected challenges in operating in such areas. We succeeded.

The aircraft were assembled, fuelled, communication links established, autopilot configured etc. All good.

However, since arrival in Malawi, the performance of the UAV engines was significantly below that of the pre-deployment tests of just two weeks prior, in Spain. The Hansard UAV is designed to operate on internationally available, regular, road gasoline and gasoline/ethanol blends typical of that locally available in most parts of the developing world, with an operational engine ceiling of 3000m asl — well above the 1000m asl of the aerodrome.

After several days of investigation on multiple UAV aircraft and engines, it was concluded that the most likely cause of the engine performance irregularity was that the fuels sourced from local service stations were detrimentally contaminated.

The field burn test

To test the contamination hypothesis, a rudimentary in-the-field ‘burn test’ was conducted. Equal quantities of 1) fuel sourced from multiple local automotive service stations in Kasungu District and 2) ‘clean’ gasoline directly sourced from the primary importer in Lilongwe, were put in small aluminium dishes and set alight, with the resultant burn observed. This was repeated.

When compared to the relatively clean burn of the fuel from the national importer, the fuel sourced from local service stations burned with plumes of heavy black smoke, produced pungent and acrid smells, left considerable carbon deposits and in some cases a residual black ‘sludge’, indicating poor combustion and suggesting significant contamination with other unknown substances.

Reducing weather sensitivity

Changes in European flight regulations for UAV aircraft had restricted our pre-deployment calibration flight programme in Spain. This had the effect of forcing a flight programme in Malawi that was more sensitive to weather and ground conditions than would be usual for an operational deployment, through the need for higher ground speeds.

We are delighted that the Hansard platform has now received the Certificate of Airworthiness-EF from AESA (the first in Europe for a humanitarian multi role drone), meaning that calibration flights are now able to take place pre-deployment, and therefore increasing our weather tolerance when on deployment. This will provide much greater operational flexibility, the ability to operate in a wider range of weather conditions and improved speed of setup, for all future deployments.

The Great Takeaway

The deployment provided a plethora of experiences from which to learn and further enhance operational efficiency and cost effectiveness.

One of the non-technical areas identified for improving efficiency was the potential benefit of incorporating a use-case specialist into the in-country deployment team. This non-technical expertise, such as that capable of being provided by a DFID emergency response expert, would potentially help mitigate or avoid some of the unexpected issues that arise from operating in unusual contexts, such as that of Malawi. This has been recommended to FTL as standard practise for all future projects.

Whilst the runway at the aerodrome was generally of adequate condition to support large fixed wing drone operations, patches of damage and overgrown vegetation did pose challenges for the very high speed ground runs used for development (calibration) testing. Once identified as an issue, these patches of overgrowth were cleared manually.

Patches of vegetation on the runway

However, as all future deployments will have the Hansard aircraft pre-calibrated for low-speed take off / landing, and fitted with a modified undercarriage / landing gear suitable for unprepared ground, the system will be suitable for operating from an extremely wide range of surfaces. Validation of this and the building of an evidence portfolio of operations from different surfaces (road, runway, field, track etc) will be the subject of various projects in the upcoming period.

Box smart. We identified that even though the international shipping and transportation of the aircraft and equipment worked, further improvements in efficiency and cost could be achieved through a redesign of the shipping containers to use a smaller footprint and act as custom aircraft work-stands.

Homecoming

In the days following the return from Malawi, UAVAid co-founder, Daniel Ronen, briefed Rt Hon Penelope Mordaunt, Secretary of State DFID and Matthew Rycroft CBE, Permanent Secretary DFID, on the Hansard system, as part of the Department of International Development’s Innovation Week programme. This briefing was hosted in the atrium of the DFID main office in Whitehall, London.

Daniel Ronen briefing Sec State Penny Mordaunt on the UAVAid drone system

More Info

More information about the UAVAid programme and events in Malawi can be found at the UAVAid website news section. > click here <

Legal Disclaimer: The authors have documented their own experiences only. It should be noted that the test methodology of the burn test was not robust and further investigation is strongly recommended before any conclusions are drawn.

UAVAid will be returning to Malawi.