Civilian Drones Raise Hopes, Questions in Africa

    09 March, 2014


    From VOA Learning English, this is the Technology Report.

    African militaries want drones to help them guard their borders and large open spaces, but makers of these drones, which are also call unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, say they could do much more than military work. They could deliver medicines, protect endangered species, and move goods quickly and cheaply. But some experts warn that letting drones operate even for "good" uses could create problems.

    Civilian Drones Raise Hopes, Questions in Africa
    FILE - A technician checks a surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) drone operated by the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern city of Goma. United Nations forces in Democratic Republic of Congo launched unmanned aircraft to monitor the volatile border with Rwanda and Uganda, the first time.

    Kenyan engineer James Munyoki has built several drones. One of them can carry a load of upto 6 kilograms. He is trying to increase that to 10 kilograms.

    "When I started building them, I was thinking the payload would be something like a camera for surveillance purposes. We need that in Kenya. That would enhance security. Apart from that, it can also monitor traffic. These are drones that can be used for journalism or photography, so the application is not just going to be for military purpose or security purpose," said Munyoki.

    Park rangers in South Africa are flying small drones to watch over endangered rhinos. Some experts say drones could also be use to document the flow of refugees trying to escape conflict from their country, or to record governmental abuses of human rights. They could help in search and rescue operations, and transport aid to hard-to-reach or dangerous areas.

    Africa's strong economic growth and bad road conditions are seeing as a great business opportunity for drone makers. They believe battery-powered drones could move from one charging center to another, carry items to villages far from cities.

    Kristin Sandvik is the director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies. She says drones may solve some problems but create others.

    "Across Africa, very few countries have comprehensive domestic legislation on privacy and data protection and information storage....A drone cannot only see or listen. It can also sense and hear and read. So in a couple of years time when you have the smaller drones also outfitted with facial recognition technology. A smaller drones that could potentially hack into wireless systems," said Sandvik.

    Ms Sandvik says drones carrying cameras maybe use to deliver aid to a refugee camp, but she asks, what happens to the information it may gather.

    "Is the drone going to then give [over] all of this humanitarian crisis mapping information? Is that going to be handed over the International Criminal Court for example?" Sandvik questioned.

    Drones are not get ready for widespread use. The sensor technology needed to prevent drones from crashing into things needs to be improved. They are also costly, and in most countries, drones or other aircraft can not be flown without special laws governing their use.

    Opponents and supporters of drones do not agree on much, but they do agree that the technology is coming likely within the next 10 years. And they say Africa needs to be ready.

    And that is the Technology Report from VOA Learning English.