Technology

Inside Kenya’s fast-rising drone training schools

drone

Dronectar co-founder Kevin Githinji during the interview at Wilson Airport on October 12, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Kevin Githinji’s drone training school in Wilson Airport, Nairobi opened its doors last year.

He started the launch process in 2018, underscoring the lengthy procedure that drone operators have to grapple with before getting approval.

But despite the hiccups, many drone training schools are mushrooming in Kenya.

“My founding partner and I did our training in South Africa. He is the chief instructor. We only had a holiday visa that was lasting about three months, but the entire training that we wanted to take part in was taking eight months…we opted to engage full time and completed the course in three months,” says Mr Githinji.

But he was not all clueless about drones. His father, he says, is the founder of the Kenya School of Flying and a pilot who gave him an edge as he used to fly light drones as a child.

“The only toys I had as a child were drones but my partner had basically never touched one.”

On coming back to Kenya, Mr Githinji and his partner faced their first hurdle; Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) had just banned drones.

Being university students at the time, they took advantage of the window before the ban was degazetted to further their research and gain more hands-on skills. Their focus then was on the assembly of drones.

As soon as the ban was repealed, the two started discussions with KCAA to learn how to go about the documentation process.

“KCAA told us they were not keen on authorising commercialisation first, what they were interested in was seeing the opening of schools,” he says.

Dronector, his training school, was the fourth to receive KCAA approval in Kenya.

The cost

Mr Githinji says the most expensive bit is the KCAA documentation process, citing his case where they had to pay Sh968,400 ($8,000) in addition to other costs including Sh2 million for the South African training and Sh300,000 for equipment set-up.

“We got funding from the Kenya School of Flying and we’ve been paying back through the earnings we get in our academy,” he says.

Training at Dronector takes four to five weeks and the facility has handled 64 students since opening. The charge for the entire Remote Pilot License course is Sh175,000 while that of an instructor is capped at Sh200,000.

For Tony Mwangi, the founder of Drone Space Training Academy, the journey to the discovery of drone technology was driven by passion.

In 2016, he left his career in the film production industry to pursue drone technology. He flew to South Africa and enrolled in a course in Remote Pilot License, later becoming one of the very first to be licensed for operations in Kenya.

He further advanced his skills to become an instructor, getting to run errands in that capacity in both Rwanda and Malawi.

“I got a job with Unites States Agency for International Development as a remote pilot to fly drones from a health centre in rural Malawi to the main hospital. We would fly the drones from Likoma Island to the hospital on the mainland to get medicines and vaccines to the health centre. We'd also send blood samples from th centre to the mainland, and get diagnoses and medicine for the patients. The distance between the island and the mainland was 64 km and the drones would take only 55 minutes,” he says.

Craig Cleave, another trainer and founder, started Kendrone Academy in 2020. He got the business licence soon after the review of the drone rules.

His institution has thus far churned out 130 learners since its opening.

“The training course takes five days. The training fee is Sh156,000 and it covers everything including the KCAA licence and the external exam,” explains Mr Cleave.

Kendrone has since established its base in Mtwapa, Mombasa and Nairobi’s Karen. It runs as a commercial drone operation unit alongside a training centre.

The drone industry has long been an untapped field following a 2018 ban by the KCAA against drone flying. At the time, Parliament rejected proposals to have the ban lifted and enact guiding regulations citing concerns about national security.

It was not until 2020 that KCAA promulgated new rules to regulate the venture that drone operations, commonly referred to as Unmanned Aircraft Systems, became permissible in the country.

The move opened the doorway for the operation of drone operation training schools, the invention and assembly of drones and the utilisation of drone technology in the commercial space.

Drone technology has since occasioned a paradigm shift across several spheres of life as more people realise the potential lying beneath for both commercial and non-commercial purposes.

In the medical sector, for instance, leveraging drone technology has worked to save lives and improve access to health services through the timely and speedy delivery of medical supplies.

Kenya’s state-owned power utility Kenya Power has been using drones to inspect power lines in a shift that has enhanced efficiency and cut labour costs. A key improvement has been in the reduction of response duration during times of blackouts.

Elsewhere, in the agricultural sphere, drones have been used to ease labour intensity during chemical sprays and firm inspections where large tracks are involved.

Other areas where the technology is being increasingly embraced include the film-making industry, traffic management, search and rescue, surveillance, and forest fire detection.

In Kenya, there are only 12 remote operator certificate (ROCs) holders allowed to do commercial drone operations while only nine training organisations have obtained KCAA approval. The nine training facilities have churned out only 450 drone pilots since November 2020 when the ban was lifted.

On what it takes to make it in the drone technology world, Dronector’s Mr Githinji shoots straight.

“You have to be proactively thinking about what your next step is because the industry is changing every single day. Every two years, the drones that you are currently using become obsolete. Every two years you have to be changing your fleet,” he says.

- Additional reporting by Caroline Gichuki.

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