Astral Aerial Solutions is a UAV technology company that provides drone solutions in various sectors and industries. In this exclusive interview with Aviation & Allied Business, Mr. Kush Gadhia, Chief Executive Officer, Astral Aeriel Solutions discussed drone technology, advantages, evolution, regulations, challenges and its uses in aviation and other sectors.
Q: Your parent company Astral Aviation is engaged in air cargo business. What informed your decision to go into drone services and what has been your experience?
A: I have always been fascinated by aviation and technology. Astral aviation, having been in operation since 2001, exposed me to airfreight operations in Africa and globally. The major challenge with air transportation is last mile delivery of essential cargo such as medical supplies, to locations with poorly developed airport infrastructure. I had a keen interest in solving this and so, decided to explore autonomous aerial systems (UAV) which combine aviation and autonomous technology for last mile delivery solutions.
So far, Astral Aerial has done some groundbreaking work in aerial solutions for different sectors such as agriculture, security, and mapping. Initially we anticipated doing more cargo delivery than any of the other mentioned services. Surprisingly, the industry was more receptive to these other services, which are doing quite well in this market. Cargo delivery is still in the works as we collaborate with regulators to figure out long range last mile delivery implementation.
Q: Having been in the sector for some time what are the challenges you have faced in Kenya?
A: Aerial drone solutions provide advantages in a lot of sectors, but not all challenges can be solved by drones. The key is in identifying which challenges drones can come in to provide efficiency, agility, cost savings or timely up to date data. Finding that ‘niche’ need for drones and incorporating them in different applications such as agricultural mapping, spraying, survey or security surveillance was a challenge at first. But it was also an interesting challenge to solve.
An example of a unique niche is where we provide service combinations for large commercial farms e.g agricultural mapping and spraying as well as aerial security surveillance. These services are more efficiently delivered by aerial drones than existing ground solutions or complement existing ground solutions to improve their delivery.
Other challenges include regulation, safety, and public concern in drone implementation within different localities. With continued adoption, we’re getting more acceptance of the technology locally.
Q: Are you looking at expanding your drone business beyond Kenya to other parts of Africa? And do you see opportunities for collaborating with other drone service providers to reach more markets in Africa?
A: Our goal is to pioneer drone technology across Africa. So yes, we’re committed to forming meaningful partnerships across the continent. We have potential partnerships in the works for Western and Southern Africa operations in agricultural mapping and spraying as well as security surveillance.
Q: Many parts of the continent require drone services to reach more people in health, agriculture, logistics etc. How can capacity be scaled up in this sector in the continent?
A: Partnership is a huge help in scaling drones across the continent. Alignment in drone regulations across regions will go a long way in easing implementation.
Aligned regulations will ensure a smooth transition when setting up operations in unfamiliar territories as operators will know what to expect for compliance requirements. This, coupled with local partnerships will drive scale regionally.
Finally, more investment in drone operators will increase drone implementation.
Q: There are safety and national security issues around drone applications. As a leading provider of drone services in Africa, how have you been balancing the risks without constraining your business opportunities and services?
A: Working hand in hand with regulators, literally. The key is to ensure that every aspect of our operations is compliant with the Kenyan RPAS regulations. It’s a sensitive balance to sustain commercial productivity while maintaining safety and security, but the cost of non-compliance to our profitability and reputation is much higher.
Additionally, in Kenya, the national airspace authority collaborates with Kenyan defense agencies on operations with unique security requirements to ensure security is assured before authorization of approvals. This adds a layer of safety and security compliance in our operations.
Q: Drone sector is evolving across the world and in Africa. Do you see national regulations limiting the growth of the sector in Africa?
A: Drone regulations provided the foundations on which drone operations are built in Africa and they were critical in the start of commercial drone usage. That is the role they played then. From that point operators could legally set up and operate commercial drones.
The next step is in alignment of regulations to enable regional partnerships and expansion. I don’t think they are a hindrance; I think they should evolve with the industry.
Q: How can African countries participate in drone manufacturing? Are there opportunities for technology transfer at this time?
A: Drone manufacturing is or rather should be the ultimate end goal for African drone operators or aspiring operators. The reality is that internationally, the industry has made more advancement in manufacturing.
Operating internationally manufactured drones is a strategic starting point for aspiring African operators, as this builds their experience and provides opportunities to reverse engineer technologies as well as innovate on the same technologies to build products that are adapted to local needs.
Q: What are the important developments you anticipate in the drone sector in years ahead?
A: More AI – Drone data integration. With industry developments, AI provides opportunities to make data identification and processing faster and more efficient.
That’s something I look forward to. Furthermore, increased battery capabilities are also important allowing for drones to stay in the air longer.
Q: How are drones helping to reduce the carbon footprint in Africa?
A: The fact that most drones are electrically powered reduces carbon emissions at the final stage of the drone’s life cycle. This may be a short or long duration. This way, drones are playing their part in reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Until we can find solutions that do the same for all phases of their production, I believe this is a significant achievement for the industry.
Q: Who is Kush Gadhia?
A: Kush Gadhia is on a mission to implement and scale drone technology to solve Africa’s challenges. It’s been an excitingly fulfilling journey so far.