Astral targets ‘drone airport’ in Lokichar by next February


An Astral cargo plane: The logistics firm set up a subsidiary to run the business of drones in Kenya and Rwanda, where use has been granted. PHOTO | FILE

Astral Aviation, a Kenyan based logistics firm, is opening a “drone airport” at Kapese Airstrip in Lokichar as it moves to fence in proceeds from oil exploration in the region.

The firm said the facility, the first in Africa, will be ready by February next year even as the government delays in approving regulations that allow use of drones in the country.

The firm has opened a subsidiary — Astral Aerial Solution — that will mainly deal with the operations of the drones, not only in Kenya but also in Rwanda where the regulations for drone operations have been approved.

The firm’s chief executive officer, Sanjeev Gadhia, said the firm intends to use drones in moving oil and gas equipment from the central logistics hub to the fields.

“We are going to open the Drone Airport in Kapese as we target to offer logistics solutions to oil drilling firms in Lokichar,” said Mr Gadhia.

The Fly Ox drone, which is one of the drones that the firm intends to buy, can carry up to two tonnes of cargo and can travel for 1,200 kilometres, making it ideal for the oil and gas operations given that the fields are far apart from each other.

The firm will also purchase drones for security surveillance and it will create a virtual highway between Kapese and Eldoret to monitor the movement of crude oil on trucks.

“The drone that will monitor the trucks will have the ability to detect any problem during transportation and the person monitoring it on the control room can respond by alerting the relevant authorities,” he said.

By August the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority said that at least 1,000 applicants were seeking regulatory approvals to operate drone-based transport.

The drone regulations are currently with the National Security Advisory Committee awaiting approval before paving the way for commercialisation.

“We submitted the regulations to the National Security Advisory Committee and they got back to us with some issues that they want us to address before it is approved,” said Gilbert Kibe, director- general of KCAA.

He noted the approval of the regulations will be done before the end of December, paving the way for commercialisation of the drones in Kenya.

This is the first time that Kenya has moved to regulate commercial use of drones, following in the footsteps of Rwanda.

The government intends to transport crude from Lokichar to Eldoret via road in insulated tankers, before it is moved by train to Mombasa.

Some critics of the programme have faulted the government, saying transporting such minimal amounts of oil via road is not cost-effective.

British exploration firm Tullow says it backs the move to export 2,000 barrels of crude oil per day by road, saying the Early Oil Pilot Scheme (EOPS) will give them the vital information they need for full-scale production.

The 2,000 barrels of oil per day will translate to Sh8.3 million daily and Sh3 billion annually based on World Bank crude forecasts of $41 per barrel, assuming the wells run daily.

Among other things, the proposed regulations require commercial drone owners to have security clearance from the Ministry of Defence. Civilians are limited to flying drones at a height of not more than 400 feet.

Violations attract a maximum of Sh500,000 in fines or jail.