When you picture deliveries by drone, you’re probably imagining a glittering craft winching the latest purchase from Amazon Prime down to excited suburban consumers. A thrilling technology, but ultimately one that serves to do little more than put delivery drivers out of work and further fuel our rampant addiction to consumerism.
However, in other less economically developed parts of the world, the humble drone could be nothing short of a revolution.
“Obviously robotics and autonomous technologies will have very large political and social ramifications in industrial countries, but we feel in poorer countries that are not industrialised and never going to be industrialised, then robotics can buy you some efficiency that you would not otherwise have,” said Redline Cargo Drone Network founder and director of Afrotech-EPFL Jonathan Ledgard in a talk at WebSummit about his ambitious project.
For Ledgard, drones are an opportunity to leapfrog the last 150 years of technological development, and bring African communities into the developed world at a price that’s actually realistic. And having already secured co-financing and support from the president of Rwanda for the first droneport, he’s optimistic about how quickly it can be rolled out.
“Before 2030 every emerging economy town who wants a droneport should have one,” he added.
As a former war reporter and Africa correspondent for the Economist, Ledgard is very familiar with the problems facing much of the continent.
“52% of Tanzanians are under the age of 19,” he said, recounting an assignment that saw him travel from village to village with the country’s president.
“The president, in every village we went to, would give a speech. I was sitting next to him and he was slumped down as he left the town and I said: ‘Mr President, forgive me, but you look exhausted from giving these speeches’. He says: ‘I have no idea where the jobs are going to come from’.
“And this is the essential problem that we face in the next 10, 20 years: these young people will have smartphones, they will be better educated than any African ever before but they won’t have any jobs, so it’s a potentially combustible future.”
The solution, Ledgard believes, lies in technology – a conclusion that he has only been able to come to through his time in the region.
“I was a war correspondent, so when I arrived in Africa in 2002 I was really focused on the Kalashnikov [AK rifle] and if someone had asked me then what the most important design or innovation to hit Africa since the Second World War was, I would have said it had been the Kalashnikov,” he said.
“But then Nokia came along with the Nokia 1100 phone and that changed my life. In fact that’s really the reason I’m standing on this stage, because that phone retailed for less than $30 in Africa and it proved that they can put very advanced technology into the hands of extremely poor people at a massive scale.
“It should have ended a lot of development arguments, but it still hasn’t ended the arguments because with what I’m doing now, we’re still having the same arguments that we had when the mobile phone came out, which is saying ‘oh, you’ll never get the price point down, people won’t know how to use it’ and so on.”
Witnessing the impact of the world’s best selling mobile phone handset ultimately prompted Ledgard to pursue a very different approach, and five years ago he was given the opportunity to establish a lab at Switzerland’s École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) focused on bringing advanced tech to Africa.
“We thought about it for about a year and a half and it became very clear that the two big technologies which are going to impact Africa are going to be cheap robotics and artificial intelligence. And if you can align those technologies towards helping poorer communities, then some really great efficiencies and possibilities are possible.
“So I set up this initiative for Redline and we have quite a lot of partners now in some of the top tech schools in the world.”
The inherent problem faced by many African communities is that relatively close towns and villages have limited access to one another due to poor or in some cases barely existent road networks. Traditionally, the solution to this would have been to initiate a sprawling and expensive infrastructure project, but this would likely have been put off indefinitely due to the staggering costs involved.
But drones skip this issue completely, meaning goods can be sent just 15-20km as the crow flies, rather than being carried “a hundred kilometres on a bad road”.
As a result, Redline intends to establish vast networks across African countries, which will serve as a kind of “railway in the sky”.
“At full scale you can really imagine along, for example, the Gulf of Guinea between Lagos and Abidjan, that you will have very large cargo drone corridors that are going to function more efficiently than some terrestrial transport,” said Ledgard.
And it’s already starting, with one item that perhaps benefits the most from dramatically reduced travel times.
“The first use case we picked was to fly blood around. The drone, it looks a little like a bird and it’s carrying a blood pack, and you have a central distribution point which is flying the blood out,” he explained.
“It’s very hard in Africa particularly in malarial parts of Africa which have a high need a blood, to get blood where it is needed quickly and cheaply enough.”
Cargo drones in action
There are, however, barriers that need to be overcome, not least the need for regulation.
“We need to get a law code that works; if you don’t have a law code you have no liability insurance, then you have no scalability,” he explained.
However, the drones themselves are also a challenge, because they need to be designed to suit the needs of the communities they are serving, rather than simply being borrowed from designs in use in developed nations.
People always ask me what I think the future cargo drone look like, and I think it’s like if you had Citroen 2CV and a very attractive Star Wars fighter and they got together and had a lovechild
“It’s clear to me that Chinese companies will probably be manufacturing most of the airframes. We really want to try and push them to a price point and the performance that would be scalable, so a Nokia-like solution,” Ledgard said.
“People always ask me what I think the future cargo drone look like, and I think it’s like if you had Citroen 2CV and a very attractive Star Wars fighter and they got together and had a lovechild, that is basically what the cargo drone should look like: it has to be very rugged, very simple, very stripped down, but also very, very futuristic.
“We saw in Africa in our testing that just putting LED lights on the back of a cargo drone so the light kind of flowed behind it as it sped along, that really affected the way the community liked it. They thought that was very cool.”
Meet the droneport
If this railway in the sky is to get off the ground, however, it will also need its own equivalent of stations. That’s where the droneport comes in.
“The airframes will be VTOL – so vertical takeoff and then flip into flight mode – and even the smaller one is pretty large so you really need a place to land it safely and securely and then to think about the economic relations with the community,” he explained.
“What you really want to get to is something which is for a smaller town and has a relationship with its community. So obviously the drone port operation itself has to be run as any airport is run. Very professionally, very securely.”
However, it’s also important to make the setup work for the needs of the community.
“You don’t want automation on the last mile in Africa. It just makes no sense at all when you’re going to have systemic 70%, 80% youth unemployment, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to have a last mile solution, except for emergency healthcare. So people come to the drone port, drop-off packages, receive packages etc.”
But the building, designed by legendary architect Norman Foster, will also play a number of other key roles in the community.
“I think that what is important about this design is its civic building in a town which doesn’t have many civic buildings. You might have a Catholic church, a mosque, a post office maybe, but this will probably be one of the most significant buildings in the town,” said Ledgard. ”The price point on that building should be less than $200,000 because it’s just built of the Earth, of compacted earth built on the site.”
As a result, the droneport will likely be the embodiment of African cyberpunk, encompassing a 3D printing shop and other futuristic services alongside the more conventional resources.
“The droneport should be able to have multiple use cases. So you have a clinic in it, you have some e-commerce and postal and logistics function in it, obviously you have the drone operations and then you have the digital fabrication shop, which is basically a garage for the 21st century where you’re 3D printing parts.”