(Bloomberg) -- An Airbus SE unit developing high altitude, solar powered drones that offer communications services said it plans to build its first hub in Kenya as it looks to begin commercial operations.
AALTO HAPS Ltd. aims to deploy its Zephyr aircraft that can stay aloft for days at a time from four or five bases around the world, starting with Kenya, Samer Halawi, the unit’s chief executive officer said in an interview in Nairobi.
“We’re going to be providing more connectivity, mobile connectivity and earth observation services from an altitude or an orbit or frontier that has never been explored before,” Halawi said, referring to stratospheric range, about 20 kilometers above Earth.
That’s lower than satellite networks such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which operate in so-called low Earth orbit — some 550 kilometers above the Earth. AALTO says its Zephyr can be launched whenever it’s needed, although the company plans to sell its services to mobile operators rather than to individual customers.
The Zephyr, which the company expects to eventually be capable of spending as many as 200 days in flight, could replace mobile phone towers in remote locations or in times of natural disaster, Halawi said. It can also be used for remote observation, capable of zooming in down to 7 inches and transmitting video and images in near real-time, Halawi said, giving governments the capability to monitor forest fires, protests, borders and insecurity.
The company says its first outpost in Kenya will create as many as 1,000 direct and indirect jobs.
“The weather, the wide open spaces, the uncongested airspace, stable government, economic environment, well educated young, tech savvy population,” said Tom Guilfoy, vice-president for AALTOPORT operations. “There’s so many good reasons to be here.”
Kenyan operations will launch at the beginning of next year and begin serving customers from the third quarter, the company said. AALTO has met with local telecommunications companies Safaricom Plc and Telkom Kenya Ltd. on providing connectivity to about 3% of the country, mostly remote areas.
AALTO has also met Kenya’s aviation, meteorological and communications authorities about setting up in the East African country but hasn’t yet received all of the approvals required to operate.
The company plans to build 50-75 Zephyrs a year, to be launched from four or five specially designed ports, Halawi said. In Kenya, the company plans to establish an assembly line, maintenance facility and network operating center, Halawi said.
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