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Drones for development

Deliveries by drones may be the future for Africa.

Read time 4min 30sec

What did South Africans want for Christmas? A drone, apparently. According to an analysis of pre-festive season trends by e-commerce site bidorbuy, the term 'drone' is now among the ten most frequent searches on the site, ranking alongside watches' smartphones and laptops. Buying a drone for personal use doesn't come cheap. The most affordable drone for adult use available in South Africa is almost R16 000, while even drones for kids will set you back up to R7 000.

We require immediate, bold, radical solutions.

Lord Foster, Foster & Partners

There are other uses for drones, however. Animal welfare - and the prevention of poaching - has of late been a key focus for drone companies. Google is funding antipoaching drones to protect rhinos in Africa, while Tanzanian startup Bathawk Recon has recently started using drones to track wildlife and poachers, looking to protect the country's dwindling elephant population.

Yet the real potential of drones in Africa, and where we will likely see more usage than purely personal, is in commerce. Africa's economic growth is continuing apace, with seven of the 11 fastest growing economies in the world located on the continent. Yet transport networks are woefully unprepared to deal with the increased amount of commerce across Africa, with the World Bank estimating the continent will need to spend as much as $38 billion each year just to keep up the current level of development.

The continent, however, has a history of leapfrogging certain types of technology and infrastructure and adopting the latest models. Most African nations skipped fixed line infrastructure in favour of mobile, while even within that space, for many Africans, a smartphone was the first such device they owned, as opposed to a basic or feature phone.

Droneports

Drones could provide the technology that allows Africa to leapfrog other types of infrastructure - for example more extensive road or rail networks - when it comes to deliveries of commercial or humanitarian goods. For instance, the Afrotech technology innovation project at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) began working on a cargo drones project - Red/Blue Line.

Infrastructural leap

The idea - if not its rollout - is simple. Afrotech has designed drones able to carry packages for distances of up to 80 kilometres. The Red Line, which will be the first to be tested, is for transporting blood and other medical necessities to clinics in rural areas. Yet Jonathan Ledgard, director of the programme, says the real money lies in the Blue Line, which Afrotech hopes will eventually see commercial items transported by drone.

"It's inevitable on a crowded planet, with limited resources, that we will make more intensive use of our sky using flying robots to move goods faster, cheaper, and more accurately than ever before. But it's not inevitable that these craft or their landing sites will be engineered to be tough and cheap enough to serve poorer communities that can make most use of them," says Ledgard.

Testing is necessary, and the Red Line is set to undergo just that. Rwanda will host the first pilot of the Red Line, hosting the world's first 'droneport', which will be built by architectural firm Foster & Partners. The initial setup, which will be completed by 2020, will allow the network to send supplies to 44 percent of Rwanda. Later phases hope to establish more than 40 droneports across Rwanda, while its central location makes expansion to other African countries a strong possibility.

"Africa is a continent where the gap between the population and infrastructural growth is increasing exponentially. The dearth of terrestrial infrastructure has a direct impact on the ability to deliver lifegiving supplies, indeed where something as basic as blood is not always available for timely treatment. We require immediate, bold, radical solutions to address this issue," says Lord Foster, chairman and founder of Foster & Partners.

Yet it is in the future application to commerce that Ledgard and others see the most potential for drones in Africa. It's not as outrageous as it sounds. Elsewhere in the world, companies are slowly realising the potential of drones in commerce. Amazon has called for a separate airspace zone for commercial drones, while trials have been undertaken by the likes of Alibaba and Google.

Africa has the potential to be a world leader in this regard. Just as mobile phones dispensed with landlines, cargo drones have the ability to overcome geographical barriers such as mountains, lakes and rivers, without the need for the large-scale physical infrastructure Africa is so sorely lacking.

With Africa's population set to double to 2.2 billion by 2050, the investment required in infrastructure is unlikely to materialise. Drones could provide an infrastructural leap of the kind Africa has seen before.

This article was first published in the [February 2016] edition of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine. To read more, go to the Brainstorm website.

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