FIVE University of Zimbabwe students studying aeronautical engineering came together to develop four drones, formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles, that can be used both in border security surveillance, crop fumigation, filming and videography and other useful functions.
President Mnangagwa recently spearheaded the establishment of innovation hubs so as to produce startups which provide focused solutions to the country’s needs as well as produce goods and services.
The hubs are now seen as an important vehicle for finding solutions to the country’s pressing problems, generate higher level manufacturing, and spur economic growth in line with the Second Republic’s Vision 2030 anchored the economic blue-print National Development Strategy 1.
The young men from the UZ Aeronautical Engineering Department showcased their designs recently at the UZ Research Innovation and Industrialisation Week, a major event that allows students to demonstrate their talents in technology.
“We have built four drones using both imported and locally manufactured materials. It’s a project by five students and we want to solve some of the problems related to agriculture, border surveillance, film and videography as well as delivery of critical medicines to remote parts of the country,” said Tinashe Madondo (22), a project leader and third year aeronautical engineering student. His team-mates are: Jeremiah Chakaamba (26), Tinotenda Mundoringisa (22), Bervin Chikwangura (27), Matthew Kufa (23) and Ruvimbo Sichilaba (21).
The team started developing the prototype drones in 2021.
“We have tested them up to an altitude of not more than 120 metres, the maximum permitted by the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe. We did the trials here at the UZ and we are so excited by these achievements,” said Madondo.
“These are just prototypes and we hope to get funding from the UZ Innovation Hub to commercialise this project and also to develop a Hybrid VTOL drone which can ferry medicines and other critical supplies in emergency situations by December this year.”
The students built the drones, and then configured the systems.
Jeremiah Chakaamba said they were motivated to showcase their talent and skills following on the country’s self-reliance and indigenisation drive.
“As Zimbabweans, as Africans we too, have the capacity to make drones. It’s not a preserve for people in the West and in Asia. With adequate financial support we as Zimbabweans can build our own drones,” he said.
“We can go beyond just simply assembling to manufacturing all the components on our own. We built the four drones at a low cost which is far much lower than the price of imported drones which are being sold for between US$4000 and US$20 000 depending on the types.
“If we get adequate funding we can cut our drone import budget and save foreign currency.”
Drones are now in use in a number of other industries like agriculture, mining, geographical mapping and disaster relief efforts among other sectors in the country.
The UZ prototype drones are battery powered and the team has plans to develop a hybrid drone that can also use fuel and increase its load capacity.
The prototypes took them less than two years of research and development.
The project faced delays because of the Covid-19 lockdowns, lack of funding and import procurement bottlenecks for key components.
“We want to build a hybrid drone with improved designs that allow it to take more weight, as well as fly further and more stably at a higher level. By December, we should be having this. We want to use it to deliver medicines and other essential supplies to remote parts of the country at a lower cost,” Chakaamba said.
Last year, Zimbabwe’s innovator and inventor Maxwell Sangulani Chikumbutso scored another first for the country by developing a drone which could be used for military operations, border patrols, anti-smuggling missions, wildlife protection and delivery of medication to remote places.
He developed a drone that uses JetA1 and power generated using radio frequency to reach up to 3 350m above sea level.
Zimbabwe has put in place a basic regulatory netowork although this may have to be expanded.
But the UZ students are optimistic about the future drone development in the country.
“The future of this industry is bright. We young innovators carry the country’s hopes in aeronautical engineering development. Zimbabwe has to just support and fund projects by young students like us to come with drones that can be used for critical sectors such as health, agriculture, border patrol and videography,” said Bervin Chikwangura.
“We need funding to see our project through to the commercialisation stage. Lack of funding can frustrate young innovators and force them to be taken abroad.”