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Drones are a controversial topic when it comes to national security. However cargo drones, with their potential applications for last mile delivery in remote areas and humanitarian emergency situations, are tipped to be an exciting area of innovation for Africa.

But who is behind the push for cargo drones in Africa, why has it got the business world so excited, and how is progress on this embryonic technology panning out?

Cargo drones are small pilotless airplanes designed to transport 20-30kg packages across distances of 80km or perhaps further. The technology could have a revolutionary impact for delivering products to remote, poorly connected communities in much of Africa.

By SHERELLE JACOBS @ This is Africa

In Kenya, for instance, the World Bank estimates that less than 7 percent of the country’s roads are paved – despite being considered a leading market in the region. Northern Ethiopia, meanwhile, features remote villages and steep mountain passes connected by winding dirt roads. Cargo drone delivery could find many applications in these, and other, contexts.

Afrotech, a project launched by the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, is at the cutting edge of cargo drone research for the region. Next year, it will start testing cargo drones across 80km distances in Africa, though the location of the tests have yet to be confirmed.

According to Jonathan Ledgard, director of Afrotech, it is no coincidence that cargo drones technology is being pushed ahead for Africa. “There is opportunity to move faster on this in Africa than in developed countries. Many African countries do not have many planes in the sky,” he points out.

He points to Rwanda as an example, which only has three commercial flights each day. “In industrial countries, the skylines are dense, not just with planes but also power lines.”

Professor Jim Scanlan of the University of Southampton, who has been researching the potential uses of cargo drones in remote areas like the UK’s Shetland Islands, agrees:

“The Scottish Highlands is a natural place to test drones because they are less likely to crash into a motorway or busy conurbation if something does go wrong,” he says. “It is a similar situation with Africa and one of the reasons why we are seeing movement there as opposed to innovation hubs in the developed world.”

However he thinks that it is the humanitarian applications in Africa that make the development of cargo drone technology most compelling, and may also help to streamline government approvals to launch certain projects.

“I think one of the big questions for people championing cargo drones in Africa has been how to get permission from the government,” Mr Scanlan explains.

“If there is a humanitarian dimension, like a need to get supplies to people in the event of a conflict or an earthquake, then it is harder for a government to disagree, which is probably why initial projects in Africa focus on humanitarian routes.”

This has been the approach taken by Afrotech. The team has already hammered out timetables for the introduction of cargo drones to African skies, and is in talks with certain African governments about establishing humanitarian red line routes for cargo drones carrying medicines and emergency supplies to remote areas in times of crisis. The idea is that commercial blue routes will flourish after the humanitarian routes prove to be a success.

Mr Ledgard insists that cargo drones will be “an accelerated technology”, and that we are likely to see the first cargo drone ports completed by 2018.

“We should see the development of an arterial transport infrastructure, with cheap, functional drones at the heart within a few years,” he claims.

Drones for commerce

In commercial terms, cargo drones present themselves as a dream solution for e-commerce and the transport of high value technology at a low cost. According to Mr Ledgard, his team is working to develop cargo drones at a price point comparable to “motorbike levels”. Moreover, the cost of transporting a package via cargo drone should be around a quarter of the cost of using the post or a courier.

Nonetheless, Ledgard does concede that “it is not clear that the current price point will come down enough to benefit the poorest”.

The Afrotech director emphasises that it is difficult to predict exactly what consumers will end up using cargo drones for the most. During a recent trip to Kenya, one individual said he would use the technology to deliver bibles to relatives. “My point is it is not for us to dictate what they will be used for. It is up to local service users themselves,” he says.

Drone ports may sound like something out of a science fiction film, but they are well on their way to being a reality. Afrotech has recruited the renowned architect Norman Foster, who has previously designed London’s Stansted airport, Heathrow Terminal 5 and Beijing Airport, to design the first drone ports.These stations will act as the locus from which drones will be operate, and where locals and businesses will be able to drop off packages to be transported.

“I made a bit of a joke with [Foster], saying: now he has built the world’s biggest airport in Beijing, how would he like to build the world’s smallest one?” says Ledgard. He adds that the drones should look like “petrol stations for the 21st century” and function as community hubs.

They will also be cheaper than the average petrol station, costing $300,000 each to build rather than $400,000. According to Afrotech’s projections, building 30 drone ports should add one percentage point to a country’s GDP.

Aside from delivery, drone technology could have other commercial uses in Africa. These include monitoring crops, especially on large plantations and farms where inspection of produce is expensive and time consuming.

Drones might also be used to inspect infrastructure in industrial businesses. In mining, they could serve to keep track of daily production levels. Cargo drones could also prove useful for foreign companies working in isolated areas of Africa, such as oil and mining firms.

Cargo drone enthusiasts are confident that the technology will be game changing in Africa. “On the transformational scale, cargo drones are somewhere in between mobile money and mobile phones” in terms of impact, Mr Ledgard argues. “It is more revolutionary than mobile money, but it won’t change people’s lives on the same scale that mobile phones themselves did.”

He adds that there is also an opportunity for governments to learn from how they dealt with the rise of mobile phones to the benefit of their countries. “This time around I think they will be more open and pragmatic rather than sitting on the technology and being closed,” he says.

Overcoming the obstacles

However, those pioneering cargo drones still have to deal with a number of challenges. Both Mr Ledgard and Mr Scanlan concede that it will take time for people to get over their unease about having unpiloted flying objects whizzing around over their heads.

Concerns about safety are not unique to Africa-geared commercial drone technology. Amazon is working to roll out drone delivery technology, while Facebook is looking to deploy wifi drones to bring connectivity to emerging markets. However, like Afrotech’s work, both have been dogged by anxieties about safety.

The message that technology developers seem eager to get across is that the technology is already safe. It is just a case of making it even safer. This will involve legislative efforts. Switzerland, for example, is currently working on building legislation around drone safety which will focus on ensuring the flying machines avoid manned airspaces.

Some of the safety-related developments that will emerge in coming months and years will be technological as well. “If a drone is going to crash, you have to make sure it drops safely and slows down as it descends perhaps in a sort of spiral fashion,” Mr Ledgard says, adding that government and security operatives also need to have measures in place that will allow drones to set down anywhere in the event of a disaster or bad weather.

Jim Scanlan from the University of Southampton has a similar stance. “Cars are not strictly safe, nor are planes. People die regularly in both. The question is what is an acceptable level of safety. Cargo drones won’t have too much of an issue in this area as they are already clearly safer. The only problem is that if you have a high profile accident with a drone early on, then it could set back progress.”

In order to make an accident as unlikely as possible, Mr Scanlan suggests that cargo drone operators should be licensed pilots with a certain standard of training and that they should also be rigorously vetted.

Another potential safety vulnerability for cargo drones is cyber security. Organised criminals may attempt to hack cargo ports in order to redirect drones and steal high value goods they are carrying. Cargo drone companies will have to invest big money in software guards and cyber hacking experts to prevent this worst-case scenario, according to Afrotech.

Finally, the hype about cargo drones does raise a niggling fear: do they give African governments one more reason not to bother with the more expensive and less sexy task of building roads? The pioneers behind cargo drones admit that this is an interesting question, and no satisfactory answer presents itself. “We can wish as much as we want for the government to build more roads, [but] if you want the economy to grow then you need to be able to move certain goods more quickly,” says Mr Ledgard.

Mr Scanlan’s thoughts are similarly framed: “We still need the roads even with drones. But you can’t get away from the fact that there are parts of Africa where making roads is very expensive,” he says.

“You have to ask yourself: even if you did not have the drone, would the road be built? Unfortunately, the answer is ‘probably not’.”

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