Airbus will use its Zephyr High Altitude Platform Station to expand connectivity services to underserved communities. PHOTO | COURTESY


Airbus picks Kenya for first drone hub

European aerospace giant Airbus is eyeing Kenya as the base for its first earth station for high-altitude communication drones, opening the potential for up to 1,000 jobs for locals.

Airbus subsidiary AALTO, which has developed the solar-powered Zephyr High Altitude Platform Station (Zephyr HAPS), said it plans to put up the operation hub in Laikipia County from early next year, subject to regulatory approvals in Kenya.

AALTO chief executive officer Samer Halawi told the Business Daily that its management team met and briefed several government agencies last week, including the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA), Kenya Airports Authority (KAA), the Meteorological Department, defence agencies and the Communications Authority of Kenya (CA), about the platform.

They also met representatives of telecommunications companies, who are being targeted as major users of the aircraft, which will operate in the stratosphere (a height of 10 to 50 kilometres) and can act as a mobile signal mast. The company has been scouting for locations that offer a combination of favourable weather conditions for launching and landing the aircraft, good business practices and ease of doing business, a large pool of talent and the ability to offer the right licences quickly.

“We looked at all of these and realised Kenya has all of these qualities. We are here to ask the different entities and stakeholders to work with us…we have other options also, but we are focusing on getting Kenya going first,” said Mr Halawi, without disclosing the expected financial outlay on the hub.

“We will have four or five hubs around the world, which will serve the whole world. In those hubs, we will have multiple units including a port to launch and land the aircraft, maintenance facilities, an assembly line that will manufacture about 50 aircraft a year, an operations centre and customer care facilities.”

AALTO’s expectation is that a hub, over a seven-year period, would be generating anywhere between 800 and 1,000 jobs in ICT, manufacturing and services.

The company plans to have about 1,000 aircraft flying at any one time in the first few years of operation. Kenya moved ahead of the queue as a preferred hub due to having a weather window of up to 10 months a year to launch the aircraft and is slated to host the bulk of launches and landings.

Mr Halawi added that the assembly line in a hub will produce up to 50 drones a year, but can be double-shifted to 100 if demand goes up.

“To create a base for stratospheric aircraft to be launched would put Kenya at the forefront of HAPS commercial and technical regulation, and pave the way for the industrialisation of the sector this decade,” said Mr Halawi.


CEO of AALTO Samer Halawi during an interview on November 30, 2023, at Sankara Hotel in Nairobi. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

“Kenya’s good language facilities and favourable time zone also mean that the company can put the programme’s main customer care in the country,” he added.

The Zephyr aircraft, which Airbus had been developing over the past 20 years, lands and takes off in a corkscrew motion, and can stay airborne for more than 30 days at a time. The current version weighs 75 kilos with a wingspan of 25 metres.

The company is targeting various uses for the vehicle, including security observation and border security, mobile connectivity, forest fire management and precision agriculture. It also provides a platform for aerial photography for mapping.

When deployed as a mobile signal mast, the Zephyr HAPS has a coverage footprint of 7,500 square kilometres, which is equivalent to 250 terrestrial mobile masts.

The company is, therefore, targeting mobile operators who want to expand their coverage into rural and remote areas, where low population density makes it uneconomical to set up terrestrial masts.

By operating a moving platform, the Zephyr can also be deployed to provide high speed mobile connectivity to the maritime sector, especially cruise ships that have large data needs.