African Drone Forum 2020

Lake Kivu Challenge

Update 5/5/2020: Phoenix-Wings won the Sample Pickup Competition and the Special Innovation Award worth a total of 75000£!
Read the press release
Watch the winners video on Youtube

The Phoenix-Wings team was founded just one year ago, when they decided to jump into the challenge. This was the beginning of their journey which lead them to Karongi at the shore of Lake Kivu.

Take-off at the remote island | Image: The African Drone Forum

Preparation for the Challenge

The tasks are based around medical transport services performed by drones to an island 20km into lake Kivu in Rwanda. The most relevant requirements being fully electric propulsion, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities and safe operations according to general and national regulations.

After their general proposal was accepted in round one, the team fully focused on paperwork for the permission to fly while also performing mission testing using a smaller development aircraft as well as the Manta Ray itself. Additionally, numerous tests in hardware in the loop systems were performed to ensure correct operation under the expected mission conditions.

As the only team, Phoenix Wings was finally selected for both cargo tasks, one being an emergency delivery, the other a sample pickup. Therefore, the modular cargo capabilities of their largest cargo drone, the “Manta Ray” could be fully used.

Since the Manta Ray is a large drone, the final barrier was to organize the logistics to ship it safely in a big box and additionally finding a way to transport its high energy batteries.

Travelling to Rwanda, #Drones for good

A few days after the plane was pushed into the truck that barely had enough space, the first members of the team boarded their plane in Munich. But as many things on the way, it did not go the direct path. For bad weather at Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, the plane diverted to Entebbe in close by Uganda first, which brought along an extra stay at Lake Victoria.

Finally got a truck to transport the Manta Ray

After getting to Kigali finally and the equipment out of customs, the last part of the journey was the 140 km road from Kigali to Karongi, where the droneport is located at the shore of the lake. Despite bus breakdowns, everyone finally arrived at the flying location and was excited to officially present the Manta Ray to the world for the first time.

First Flights and Scrutineering

It was now time to show to the team of international judges, scrutineers and local authorities, that the system fulfils the requirements as stated in the application documents and also demonstrate safe operation of the aircraft in general and under the conditions at the location. Especially some local conditions like the bay of the droneport basically being a “dead end” with population on both sides and the need of a radio relay placed on a hill nearby lead to intensive preparation work. Luckily, cooperation between the competing teams was very good from the start, helping each other in situations like radio interference or damaged equipment by power surge. Manta Ray even got struck by heavy falling objects twice, but luckily proved strong enough to not sustain more than a few scratches.

After performing some manual hover flights to demonstrate piloting skills, the job of the safety pilot became somewhat boring since all operations were performed automatic from that time on. Having developed all software of the drone and ground systems in-house now showed its great benefit in being able to explain and demonstrate everything in detail. Phoenix Wings was therefore the first team to receive permission to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and performed several demonstration flights.

Therefore, the Manta Ray system could fly an automated mission out to the lake on the VIP demo day which demonstrated the potential of medical drone delivery services to a large group of regulators, users and stakeholders from around Africa.

Phoenix-Wings at Africa Drone Forum

Getting back to Kigali for a few days, the Phoenix-Wings team and Manta Ray joined the African Drone Forum, the symposium event which connects the international community of companies, government organizations and users interested in drone application in Africa. It also serves as the host of the LKC.

Introducing the Manta Ray to Mr Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda | Image: The African Drone Forum

The Manta Ray system drawed lots of attention on the fair, even His Excellency Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda was impressed. The Phoenix Wings team also contributes to the symposium by three talks, an Ignite talk and “heavy lift” plenary by the CTO and a technology trends talk by the lead systems engineer.

After many productive discussions and having made many contacts to potential cooperation partners and customers, they headed back to Karongi to finally start the real flying competition.

Lake Kivu Challenge

Day 1: Since several teams did not finish their scrutineering yet, no competition flights were planned for the day. We decided to check our Manta Ray by sending it out on a mission halfway to the destination island. Despite the good weather forecast at take-off time, rain started falling while the drone reached its return point. At the time of arriving for landing, weather had turned into a full rainstorm. While we would normally not launch into these conditions, our systems are prepared and the plane performed a flawless automatic landing. The team was soaked by rain but happy to show that they can safely handle unexpected adverse weather.

Day 2: Now it was time to start the competition and we were called as the first team for performing a sample pickup mission from the remote island. After routinely setting up and sending the Manta Ray on its way, showing again its already famous (and energy efficient) transition to forward flight, now came the most interesting part.

The remote pilot during a BVLOS competition flight | Image: The African Drone Forum

The coordinates of the landing pad on the island had been programmed, but the pad measuring 10m by 10m did not leave too much room for error. To show a realistic application we had no pilot on the island but a pad operator who could only abort the landing and send the plane back. The team at the ground station was monitoring data while the pad operator saw the plane approaching. And Manta Ray didn´t disappoint us by precisely landing on the pad.

Now the samples were put into the plane and since it being the first long distance flight, we chose to stay conservative and exchange the battery on the island. After receiving permission, the plane was sent on its way back by the single push of a button of the pad operator. After less than 20 minutes, the mission finished with a safe landing and handing over the samples at the droneport.

Actual recorded flight path to the island and back again, around 40 km in total

Day 3: Checking the Manta Ray and analyzing data of the first full mission now got us into the position to perform two missions. Knowing energy consumption precisely now, battery swapping was cancelled, and the cargo increased. The first emergency delivery mission, carrying 18 simulated blood bags was flown in the morning, followed by a sample pickup in the afternoon. Turnaround times were reduced significantly compared to the first mission and overall performance was flawless. We could now see that the mission could easily be flown repeatedly, the datalink having constant connection including on the island pad providing additional confidence.

Day 4: To be considered for scoring in each competition, two valid flights had to be performed. We therefore needed to only fly one final delivery mission. This final flight went as planned again, showing a fully automatic flight delivering nearly 7kg to the island with having a turnaround time of less than 3 minutes bringing the total mission time to 39 minutes.

Final Thoughts

As this was the first opportunity to be compared with other players on the market, the team was happy to get recognition for some of their key system features:

  • Jerk-free and deterministic flight performance in all flight phases like takeoff, transition, retransition and landing
  • Smooth operations throughout the challenge, with quick readiness, repeatability and efficiency
  • No need for a safety pilot on the island
  • Manta Ray returning to a safe landing despite heavy rain

We very much enjoyed the openness and willingness to work together among competitors at LKC. A great community was built there, and we hope that there will be a follow up in the years to come.

Jian Wang, CEO
Team photo with competitors, judges and organizers | Image: The African Drone Forum
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