In the first of a series of reports about Afghan innovators, we talk to Zemaray Helalee, an engineer who, as well as running the electricity supply in Nimroz Province, has built his own fleet of mini-aircraft or drones.
Zemaray Helalee runs the electricity supply in Nimruz Province. In his spare time he is more focused on the skies above. (Photos: Private)
Given the huge cost of the surveillance and strike drones used by NATO, the Afghan military might consider hiring Zemaray Helalee to build a few cheaper models when it shoulders the security burden in 2014.
While hi-tech variants go for several hundred thousand to several million dollars, his home-made fleet of six pilotless aircraft cost about the same as a second-hand car to build, using scrap metal, wood and rubber, old clothing, pushchair wheels and chainsaw engines.
“My only goal in building these planes was to fulfil my childhood dreams,” says the 35-year-old electrical engineer, who was first inspired many years ago when his father, an aviation engineer, took him round Kabul airport. “I have always wanted to build planes myself and fly them without pilots.”
Helalee is well known in Zaranj, where he runs the Nimroz Province electricity department. Test flights of his radio-controlled aircraft draw admiring crowds of locals, and he is in fact already thinking beyond those initial childhood hopes.
Watched by a fascinated crowd, the designer prepares to launch number four in his series of seven home-built aircraft.
“I plan to continue to work on making planes with the [eventual] assistance of the government of Afghanistan and donor institutions. I hope to make real drones for my country one day,” he said in a phone interview.
“My family and friends encourage and admire me very much and want me to expand my work. The problem is that no institution has yet offered me any help with building planes.”
There has been no official interest in him at all that he knows of, let alone funding offers to develop an Afghan unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). And the chances are that in this age of advanced technology and elaborate defence contracts he will remain a hobby builder.
Yet his progressively more ambitious designs built in the most basic conditions cannot fail to impress, from smaller radio-controlled aircraft to the full-sized piloted aircraft he is currently completing.
And after all, American aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright built their first aircraft using parts of printing presses, bicycles, motors and other machinery.
David vs. Goliath in the drone world
Disregarding the large missile-carrying UAVs like the Predator and Reaper, footage of his own largest drone in operation calls to mind smaller reconnaissance types that buzz around the Afghan sky, like the RQ-7 Shadow 200 (see links below).
The AAI Corporation's RQ-7 Shadow 200 is frequently seen in the skies over Afghanistan, scanning the terrain for insurgent activity. (Photo: US Army)
Powered by a 38-horspeower engine and weighing 84 kilos unfuelled, the Shadow has a slightly broader wingspan of 4.3 metres. It flies at an altitude of 4,500 metres for up to seven hours with a cruising speed of 130 km/h.
Selling for a reported 500,000 dollars, it is obviously in another class entirely to Helalee's modest 150cc electric engine-powered model, which weighs 50 kilos and can fly for only 20 minutes at 70 km/h.
The Shadow needs a catapult to get it airborne, a landing strip, a ground support vehicle and a crew of 22, Helalee takes his off instantly from a stationary position on any flat piece of hard ground. He operates it using a radio control system that he removed from a toy car and enhanced to extend the flying range to seven kilometres. The Shadow can fly for 109 kilometres.
It's David and Goliath, of course. And a crucial difference is that the military model is fitted with a camera that relays ground images to the operators. But that doesn’t seem an insurmountable challenge to Helalee.
“I never tried to fit a camera in the aircraft, I didn’t think of it. But it would be easy,” he believes. “If the government can give me facilities and budget I can build them serviceable aircraft.”
He wants to get airborne too
The next generation: Halalee's 350-horsepower biplane is almost ready for its test flight.
Meanwhile, the engineer is about to take a bold and extremely perilous next step, to himself fly the piloted propeller-driven monoplane that he is close to completing.
Fitted with a 350-horsepower BMW car engine, it is designed to fly at an altitude of two kilometres at a speed of 100 km/h. Like his other models, it is made with wood, sheet metal, old clothing and other salvaged materials, and took six years to build at an estimated cost of 6,000 dollars.
The test flight will take place at Zaranj airport in two months, and Helalee exudes confidence at the prospect.
"I'm not afraid," he said. " It's not such a big plane, and just as I tested my other aircraft, I'm sure sure this test flight will be successful too."
See Helalee's drone in flight: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-W-C-JM2bS4&feature=player_embedded
And the Shadow: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6UhbgpHUbIU