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Nigeria's Rise in the Drone Industry: Insights from Charlotte Essiet and Elint Systems

Eszter Kovacs, Co-Founder and CEO of DroneTalks recently had the opportunity to sit down with Charlotte Essiet, Managing Director and CEO of Elint Systems, who introduced us to the Nigerian drone industry and the market's perspective on drone operations. For those unfamiliar with Elint Systems, it's a drone infrastructure company that was founded in 2020, during the onset of the COVID pandemic. Charlotte told us that the aim is to support drone operations, including operators and regulators, by providing a platform and the drone and the infrastructure required.

They have a number of innovative products in their portfolio, including the Vertipad, which is a precision landing pad that connects directly to ElintOS, the Multimodal Transfer Station, which is designed specifically for drone highways and the Vertical Station, which can accommodate up to 24 drones simultaneously. For drones with larger wingspans or those that don't need high-precision landings, the Logiport has been developed. Finally, there is the Drone Van for launching drones while on the move.

Elint Systems has managed to accomplish much of their success through strategic partnerships with organisations like EVA, a drone infrastructure operator. Together, they’ve launched the EVA drone pod, which is designed for drone take-off, landing and wireless charging on the ground. These drone pods are able to connect via 5G mobile network connectivity and will hopefully be adapted for eVTOL flights in the near future. Real-world applications are also in place in some of Nigeria’s drone superhighways, with additional routes to be added. 

Building a drone company in Nigeria

When we asked Charlotte what it was like founding a drone company in Nigeria during the pandemic, she said it was a humbling and growing experience for the team. During our interview at Amsterdam Drone Week, she said it was her second drone conference, with the first being DroneTecx in 2022 in Lagos, which was mostly due to the pandemic preventing her from visiting other conferences earlier.

Her first impressions of Amsterdam Drone Week were that the event was incredibly impressive, and she was excited to see so many industry leaders in one place. Additionally, she explained to us that it gave her hope for the future to see so many different businesses operating in many different industries, showing just how versatile the industry is. Additionally, she backed up this feeling at the event with research from multiple firms that have been predicting massive growth in the drone industry. In August 2023, for example, Fortune Business Insights predicted that the small uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) market, estimated at $16.9 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow to $77 billion in 2030. For industries like medical drone delivery, they also estimated the market at $1.05 billion in 2022 and will grow to $3.62 billion by 2030.

If all drone use cases climb at this rate, it means the drone industry as a whole is expected to more than triple in the upcoming years. This shows a huge return on investment for those looking to enter the drone industry. 

Entering the Nigerian drone industry as a female leader

As an advocate for female leadership in the drone industry and the creator of the first women-led event series Women behind the Drone Revolution, our CEO Eszter Kovács is always looking to understand what motivated current female leaders to enter the industry and how to use this motivation to support young women looking to start their careers in advanced aviation. 

Charlotte explained that she decided to enter the drone industry one morning after having a dream for her future business. She admitted that many people might find it a bit cliche, but it was what motivated her to start working. From that moment on, she began googling, researching and working towards achieving the next steps in building her business. After speaking to a few friends, she was able to build a network to help her get started. 

She explained, that “if you have a vision, somehow people are going to start to help you.” Still, Charlotte reminded us that the story wasn’t a perfect one, as it was still during the onset of the pandemic, and people weren’t able to travel or meet at that point. Most of the conversations were happening through phone calls or virtual meetings, which is how they founded Elint Systems. The first meeting they actually had was in August 2022. 

When we asked her how open the Nigerian drone industry was to women, she said that it was a challenge. Just like most technology-driven industries, the drone industry presents its own challenges and opportunities to women. Currently, the industry is predominantly led by and composed of men, which speaks volumes about how much she has been able to accomplish. 

Still, she explained that her career began in the oil and gas industry, which is also dominated by men and gave her the experience to develop the required resilience. To navigate these complex relationships, she told us that she likes to imagine her journey as a collapsible stool. Since she never was given a seat at the table, she brought her own collapsible chair and would bring it with her to any table she needed to be at. In the end, she now owns her own table, which is something she worked hard for. 

Charlotte also explained that combining this ambition with her willingness to adapt and learn has been key to her success. 

The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority and UAS operations

Currently, the biggest obstacle that many drone organisations face is the regulations associated with airborne drone operations. When we asked how the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority was when it came to their regulatory standards, Charlotte said that they were very forward-thinking. Their current challenge is to understand where drones should operate and how these operations fit into a larger picture for Nigerian airspaces. 

Nigeria also has the largest population, which is double the size of the second most populous country in Africa: Ethiopia. That’s a market of 220 million people, which is a bit more than the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy combined. With the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority open to drone operations and supporting the growth of the industry, it shows that there is huge potential for companies looking to start operations there. 

Charlotte highlighted some of the positive qualities she’s seen when working with the Nigerian CAA. Their enthusiasm stands out. Rather than appearing complacent or assuming they have all the solutions, the Nigerian CAA consistently demonstrates a proactive interest in ongoing developments. Their openness is evident in their willingness to accept that they may not always have the right answers in advance. This attitude, says Charlotte, provides a refreshing space for stakeholders to come up with innovative ideas and solutions.

What's more, the collaborative spirit of the Nigerian CAA doesn't just stop at accepting new proposals. They actively create avenues for stakeholders to participate in the development process. The authority understands the complexities of the aviation sector and recognises that effective change often comes from collaborative efforts. They have therefore created an environment that not only welcomes external input but also actively encourages partnerships with those who share their vision and ambition.

Developing and supporting drone corridors in Nigeria

Elint Systems is currently developing what it calls a "three-corridor" super-drone highway, and it’s expected to be operational soon. However, the launch has been delayed due to the elections in Nigeria, which took place from May to July (until the end of the first half of the year).

Once operational, this three-way drone corridor will be strategically located in selected areas of Lagos. It is designed to serve various sectors including e-commerce, logistics and medical deliveries. While they intend to work with two major drone operators, the names of these partners have not yet been disclosed. Charlotte is optimistic about the potential influx of customers once the project is fully operational.

Additionally, she said that corridors aren't the only major advancement in the industry. When it comes to BVLOS vs. VLOS operations in Nigeria, Charlotte explained that there is a good mix of both. Thanks to widespread awareness of the safety of drone operations across Nigeria, there has been steady growth in the country, which continues to help businesses thrive. While the country may not yet be able to compete with the scale of its European counterparts, the progress made in recent years is undeniable.

The drone industry can also help solve some of Nigeria's unique challenges, such as inadequate road infrastructure and traffic congestion. Unlike Europe, where traffic issues are comparatively better managed, Nigeria is constantly faced with a pressing need for efficient solutions, making drones one of the best potential answers.

How the right drone infrastructure could present Nigeria with a fast solution to current challenges

With the rapid development in drone technologies, it means that regulatory bodies like the various Civil Aviation Authorities around the world will also need to regularly keep up to date with all of these changes. Charlotte explained that Nigeria is a country ready to take on and adapt to these changes. Drone operations are already currently in place in the country with various operators already providing their services to customers. Still, it’s the lack of relevant drone infrastructure that’s currently preventing growth, which is good news for Charlotte and Elint Systems. 

Their goal is to build the infrastructure needed to revolutionise the e-commerce industry. One example of this would be using drones to deliver packages to customers, who would only need to enter a PIN code to open the delivery box. This could alleviate major traffic congestion problems that are currently facing major cities in Nigeria and pave the way for more efficient and diverse commodity delivery. 

Drone-based delivery services can also move beyond just e-commerce applications and into the realm of courier services. That would allow people to send each other packages via drones instead of relying on postal or current courier services, which might be currently too slow or expensive, forcing someone to drive to their destination to deliver something instead. 

About Charlotte Essiet

Charlotte Essiet is CEO of Elint Systems and brings over 17 years of senior leadership and management experience to the role. With a strong background in shaping commercial strategy, Charlotte has influenced key areas of business development, operations and corporate governance. 

Prior to founding Elint Systems, Charlotte was employed at Baker Hughes Incorporated where she was instrumental in increasing deepwater revenues by 16% - from $91 million to $106 million in just 12 months. During her tenure at AOS Orwell Ltd as Director of Corporate & Regulatory Affairs, Charlotte established a new government relations function, achieved $90 million in contract value with a 90% win rate in 2019, and positioned the company as the first choice for local content partner with the regulator (NCDMB). In addition to this, she led a team of seven and managed a budget of $550M, while significantly increasing the company's engagement with government and regulatory bodies.

With international market experience, Charlotte has lived and worked in the UK, Dubai and Nigeria, dealing with a variety of stakeholders and markets, particularly in the Russia, EMEA and US regions. 

About Elint Systems

Elint Systems specialises in the design, manufacturing and operation of advanced drone infrastructure. The company focuses on creating systems specifically designed for information gathering and exploration in the military, government and commercial sectors. With more than eight drone stations capable of handling payloads of up to 250 kilos, they claim to have the largest drone infrastructure on the market.

A notable aspect of Elint Systems is its partnership with EVA, the world leader in drone superhighways. Together they plan to build 1,000 miles of drone-friendly routes in Texas. The company prides itself on its ability to build high-throughput drone infrastructure to maximise operational efficiency.

Its suite of services includes cutting-edge features such as edge cloud capability and quantum key encryption. These services are tailored to meet the needs of a wide range of applications, from on-time deliveries to secure data transmission. Elint Systems also operates an e-commerce and logistics marketplace, providing a platform for businesses to connect with drone operators for the transport of goods.

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