MARGARET CHISANGA, Lusaka
SHORTLY after Zambia gained independence, one Zambian made international headlines.Edward Mukuka Nkoloso, a grade-school science teacher, had created the Zambia National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy.
He was training 12 Zambian astronauts by spinning them around a tree in an oil drum and teaching them how to walk on hands, the only way humans can walk on the moon, he argued.
The aim of the space programme was simple: to beat the United States and the Soviet Union to the moon.
The international media, including Time magazine, did not know whether to take Mr Nkoloso’s space programme seriously or not.
But Mr Nkoloso was serious: “Some people think I’m crazy… but I’ll be laughing the day I plant Zambia’s flag on the moon.”
It would have been an interesting encounter if Mr Nkoloso had been able to meet Chabula Chilombo, who is a qualified aerospace engineer, founder and chief executive officer of Serving the World through Aerospace Technology (SWUAT).
But make no mistake, Chilombo’s aerospace programme is no joke.
Chilombo formed SWUAT with a specific goal of promoting the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones for various purposes, such as the protection and conservation of wildlife.
“I grew up with a passion to develop the Zambian aerospace industry and put it among the global leading aerospace industries. This led me to form the then Serving the World using Aerospace Technologies which was later renamed Serving the World using Aerospace Technologies,” he says.
“SWUAT was actually born in September 2014, when I met a man named Mr Simukonda who at the time was head of research at the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) and Mr Milanzi who had interest in wildlife conservation.
“They helped me to form focus for my research and I immediately realised that I needed to form a company.”
But there was scepticism, particularly in the use of drones.
“So I gave a small presentation to ZAWA (now Department of Parks and Wildlife) officials on the use of drones and slowly began to gain the interest of the team,” Chilombo says.
This eventually led to the creation of drones for use in the conservation of wildlife in Zambia’s game parks.
“I have a passion for wildlife, and so I had this plan of building a drone that would catch the poacher. [But] I met one of the designers of the concord and he made a remark that changed my course and planning. He asked me why I was not designing a drone that would help all wildlife, and this is how the idea was born,” he said.
Chilombo said he presented the idea to Dr Bill Crowther, who was then a senior lecturer in aerospace design at Manchester University in the United Kingdom where he studied.
“The idea was developed and used as a silent engine to build UAVs to track elephants. I later worked with a team which further developed a system to map the amazon rain forest. Through, I learned a lot and devised ways in which it could be relevant to the Zambian situation,” he says.
Chilombo, who was born in Chingola and attended Jacaranda Junior School, Sacred Heart Convent, Mpelembe Secondary School, Lechwe Trust and Simba International Schools., expressed an interest in the pure sciences early on in life.
“I remember saying I wanted to be an astronaut during one of our JETS days, because at that time, I wanted something to do with flying or being in the stars,” he said.
“I followed up on my dream and immediately started looking for a university to study from. After attempts at several universities, I finally settled for Manchester University. I had no scholarship, so my parents had to foot the bill. And in a few years, I also learnt to have my own business and so I would send stuff home for sale and make some profit,” he says.
Chilombo says his career path has been influenced in a lot of ways by Professor Clive Chirwa, who he first met at a conference in England.
“I contacted Prof Clive Chirwa and invited him to speak at one of my conferences at the aerial aeronautical society headquarters at 4 Hamilton in London, Mayfair, Westminster, UK. The conference was on human influence vs autonomous system in aerospace. Here he had an opportunity as a keynote presenter on some of his work on crash-worthiness,” he says.
After meeting with Prof Chirwa, Chilombo continued interacting with him throughout the course of his undergraduate studies.
At that time, Chilombo was an undergraduate student at Manchester University. His excellent performance and knack for perfection resulted in him being a co-founder of the University of Manchester UAV society, University of Manchester Flight Simulation Society and the University of Manchester Student Mental Health Committee.
He was also a board member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and chief engineer in 2013/2014. “Yes we Cansat” team designed the physical subsystems for a micro satellite, later developed into a fully TubeSat launched from Seattle, United States.
Through Prof Chirwa’s guidance, Chilombo worked at different places after graduation, including a stint at the Copperbelt University, where he lectured.
Professor Chirwa now sits on the board of Chilombo’s company.
Chilombo is currently pursuing a Master’s degree of enterprise in Aerospace Civil and Mechanical Engineering in Autonomous Systems.
Chilombo said the technology he has used for UAV meant to protect wildlife is lightweight, has agility and low noise. He says it is a relatively low purchase cost and the operation costs combined with advanced imaging and global positional capabilities offer enormous advantages for use of the drone technology in wildlife conservation.
As a result of this, other partners such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) which has an interest in the conservation of wildlife also came on board.
SWUAT is working as a consultant on a WWF pilot project that will enable the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) and its conservation partners to start using drones as a tool for wildlife management in Zambia.
The project also involves the training of 15 Zambian-based conservation professionals in the operation, use and basic maintenance of UAVs.
Upon completion of an intensive training programme, the successful trainees will be examined by the Civil Aviation Authority and will be eligible for the UAV flying licences.
The second stage of the project will involve the actual deployment of the UAV units in selected protected areas for a period of six to 12 months.
Chilombo has ambitions of having a manufacturing base for aeroplanes in Zambia.
MARGARET CHISANGA, Lusaka