The year 2014 could be filled with technological innovation especially in the space industry. In 2010, a story about Ugandans making an aircraft in Ntinda, a Kampala suburb, was quickly dismissed as a joke. But that didn’t diminish the enthusiasm of the young innovators.
Led by Captain Chris Matovu Nsamba, they have a bigger dream of starting what they call the African Space Research Programme (ASRP). Last week, Nsamba and company shocked Ugandans when they unveiled a drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle, which they manufactured here in Uganda.
For the doubting ‘Thomases’, the “Drone on Dake”, as it is called, is on display at the Ugandan museum, and it has caught the attention of big shots in government, including Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and Vice President Edward Kiwanuka Ssekandi.
A drone is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. Its flight is controlled either autonomously by onboard computers or by remote control on the ground or in another vehicle.
According to Nsamba, the Ugandan drone has two cameras, a custom-made autopilot system, GPS instruments and much more.
“It has a flight time of about seven hours; the faster you fly, the less flight hours you will attain before refill. It is non-radar detectable at close range operations between the ground controller and air radar,” Nsamba noted.
Drones are usually deployed for military and special operation applications. They are also used in a small but growing number of civil applications, such as policing and firefighting, and non-military security work, such as surveillance of pipelines.
“If Uganda needs these gadgets for the well-being of our country, then it will be a pleasure serving our country with more pieces…,” Nsamba said.
Recently, it was reported in the media that Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) plans to secure drones to help monitor illegal trade in wildlife products. Nsamba says it is such organisations they are targeting. Others include the army, Uganda Police Force, and Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) to survey borders and oil companies.
Nsamba said each drone would cost about Shs 3.5 billion. According to Nsamba, ASRP also intends to be the first to release the first space drone in the world.
“Uganda doesn’t have these gadgets. As a country, we need to advance in space technology because space outreach is the key to superiority of any nation,” Nsamba said.
ASRP’s first project was in 2009 when the Ntinda-based company manufactured an aircraft called the African skyhawk, which has since been put on hold because of financial constraints.
It was meant to be a high flyer, to scan meteorites and asteroids from space using a radio telescope. The plane was advanced with a pressurised cabin, anti-missile, around 120 kilogrammes of fuel and auto-balance systems.
In 2011, ASRP tested the space rocket at Kimaka airstrip in Jinja at a function presided over by the vice president. This rocket, according to Nsamba, managed to cross the clouds under five seconds at a speed ranging over 274km/h.
In future, ASRP hopes to release a craft with hydraulic extract and retract wings, carrying one person on board powered by rocketry. Visiting the exhibition at the Uganda museum, Mbabazi said that government would support ASRP.
“We are living with people who are advanced; they can go into space, the moon and Mars. We are being left behind. The reason why we have had a history of being enslaved and colonised is precisely because of lagging behind in science,” said Mbabazi, who was mesmerised by ASRP’s innovations.
Mbabazi said government values research. He said this financial year, government set aside Shs 360bn to support research.
“This, compared to developed countries like USA, is peanuts,” Mbabazi said. “But when you consider that in 1986, the total collection of national revenue was Shs 5bn, to be putting Shs 360bn in research is a big achievement.”