A little over a decade ago, a young electronics engineer was in the lab working with some old hard disks. The disks were broken and he wanted to find use for the motors. He started harvesting the motors from the hard disks to use to drive propellers.
That is how an interest in drones got stirred in Arnold Bett, who works in the physics department at the University of Nairobi. A drone, in technological terms, is an unmanned aircraft. They are more formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems (UASes).
Essentially, a drone is a flying robot that can be remotely controlled or fly autonomously through software-controlled flight plans in their embedded systems, working in conjunction with onboard sensors and GPS.
Unfortunately, getting drone parts in 2008 was difficult, and it was not until around 2012 when he started importing parts, albeit slowly, due to funds. He also managed to import a small toy drone to play around with and familiarise himself with the operations of UAVs.
Engineer Arnold Bett builds drones for agricultural research.
With time, he met a couple of friends who were also interested in drones, and they decided to make one. They used a three-dimensional (3D) printer to design it, which helped him finish assembling his first drone, a quadcopter.
The Kenyan-born genius, who hails from Kitale, says the first drone was actually not designed with a project in mind. It was to show the potentiality of having drones manufactured in Kenya. Being that the drone was 3D-printed allowed him to attempt the projection.
“My first drone was fully 3D printed. Production time was very slow, as each part would take about six to eight hours to print. After finishing assembly and configuration of the parts, it flew quite easily with no problems,” he recalls. Regrettably, it flew out of the line-of-sight and he was not able to tell the altitude it was flying at, and it crushed.
Bett then got to building the second version. He 3D-printed the design and purposed to reuse parts from the crushed drone. From the first experience, he learned that a drone could be configured for a geo-fence, which allows one to set the radius and altitude of its flight.
The worthy impact and diverse uses of drones motivated him to keep at it. “They can be used for agricultural plant monitoring, pesticide spraying, monitoring dams, solar plant monitoring, taking aerial images, architectural images, and even animal tracking and emergency rescue among other applications,” says the engineer.
‘How about looking into the drones ban Mr President?’ Bett explains to President Uhuru about drones and 3D printing during the 2016 University of Nairobi Innovation week.
In 2014, there was a project by Peru-based research facility International Potato Center (CIP) sponsored by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to implement a drone project in East Africa.
He was invited to the team, and had an opportunity to visit Lima, Peru for training on drones, before carrying out the project.
“I have had the opportunity to attend different international workshops, which has enabled me improve my knowledge in electronics and instrumentation,” Bett says.
In the electronics lab where he works, they design, fabricate, develop and program electronic circuits. He also does a lot of instrumentation and implements some of the department’s projects to provide solutions in domestic and industrial applications.
Disappointingly, the following year, the government banned the use of drones in Kenya, which was a major setback to the CIP project, as they were assembling a commercial drone for use in the venture.
They opted to do it in Tanzania, where they applied for flight permits to collect data from some farms in their study, after which they would travel back to Kenya to process the data.
Despite the challenge posed by the ban, Bett continued to fine-tune his drone, and came up with one that is powered by rechargeable batteries, has a range of 200 metres height, weighs 2.5kg and can carry a standard camera with special sensors.
To test its performance, the drone was used to gather valuable data on potato growing in Tanzania.
The researchers say the octocopter has identified 14 varieties of sweet potatoes in fields in Mwanza, Tanzania through remote sensing. They hailed this innovation in data collection as “revolutionary”, saying it costs less, provides more information and allows scientists to analyse large-scale projects without the use of satellites.
Touring a museum in Lima, Peru during the drone training at CIP in 2015.
“I have mostly used the drones I’ve built in agriculture for monitoring purposes. It is possible to monitor plants over the growing period and come up with solutions to help farmers in making decisions and improving crop production,” he explains, adding, “My inspiration and dream is to have our own products made in Kenya.
I love to build stuff and to have made a drone to completion is my satisfaction. It is much better to build your own drone, which would cost a quarter the price of buying a new one – for $6,000 (Sh604,440). Also, because of their different applications, this allows for customisation to adapt to the diverse operations.”
Some of the challenges Bett faces include delays in shipping the parts, which have to be imported. Buying from abroad also attracts tax, increasing the cost of making the drone twofold. Because of this, he is finding it difficult to compete with established firms that ship in complete packages.
For his future plans, the innovator says that together with the group he is working with, one of the goals is to establish a community of practice for drones. This will enable the sharing of expertise and experience. For those who are not able to afford drones, they are looking at providing services for hire.
On top of that, they are considering setting up a service centre, for instance to repair a drone that has crashed. “Drones are expensive pieces of equipment, and a centre to repair and service them would be very useful,” he says