The world’s first droneport: an African revolution

In a few short years the world’s first droneport will open its doors. But, as Redline Cargo Drone Network's founder Jonathan Ledgard confirms, it will be Rwanda – not the US – that gets the future first

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.

Africa’s challenge

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.”

Technology’s impact

The solution, Ledgard believes, lies in technology – a conclusion that he has only been able to come to through his time in the region.

Images courtesy of Foster + Partners

“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.”

Connecting communities

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.”

Researchers discover remains of “Triassic Jaws” who dominated the seas after Earth’s most severe mass extinction event

Researchers have discovered the fossil remains of an unknown large predatory fish called Birgeria: an approximately 1.8-meter-long primitive bony fish with long jaws and sharp teeth that swallowed its prey whole.

Swiss and US researchers led by the Paleontological Institute and Museum of the University of Zurich say the Birgeria dominated the sea that once covered present-day Nevada one million years after the mass extinction.

Its period of dominance began following “the most catastrophic mass extinction on Earth”, which took place about 252 million years ago – at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic geological periods.

Image courtesy of UZH. Featured image courtesy of Nadine Bösch

Up to 90% of the marine species of that time were annihilated, and before the discovery of the Birgeria, palaeontologists had assumed that the first predators at the top of the food chain did not appear until the Middle Triassic epoch about 247 to 235 million years ago.

“The surprising find from Elko County in northeastern Nevada is one of the most completely preserved vertebrate remains from this time period ever discovered in the United States,” emphasises Carlo Romano, lead author of the study.

Although, species of Birgeria existed worldwide. The most recent discovery belongs to a previously unknown species called Birgeria Americana, and is the earliest example of a large-sized Birgeria species, about one and a half times longer than geologically older relatives.

The researchers say the discovery of Birgeria is proof that food chains recovered quicker than previously thought from Earth’s most devastating mass extinction event.

According to earlier studies, marine food chains were shortened after the mass extinction event and recovered only slowly and stepwise.

However, finds such as the newly discovered Birgeria species and the fossils of other vertebrates now show that so-called apex predators (animals at the very top of the food chain) already lived early after the mass extinction.

“The vertebrates from Nevada show that previous interpretations of past biotic crises and associated global changes were too simplistic,” said Romano.

Revolutionary DNA sunscreen gives better protection the longer its worn

Researchers have developed a ground-breaking sunscreen made of DNA that offers significant improvements over conventional versions.

Unlike current sunscreens, which need to be reapplied regularly to remain effective, the DNA sunscreen improves over time, offering greater protection the longer it is exposed to the sun.

In addition, it also keeps the skin hydrated, meaning it could also be beneficial as a treatment for wounds in extreme or adverse environments.

Developed by researchers from Binghamton University, State University of New York, the innovative sunscreen could prove essential as temperatures climb and many are increasingly at risk of conditions caused by excessive UV exposure, such as skin cancer.

“Ultraviolet (UV) light can actually damage DNA, and that’s not good for the skin,” said Guy German, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Binghamton University.

“We thought, let’s flip it. What happens instead if we actually used DNA as a sacrificial layer? So instead of damaging DNA within the skin, we damage a layer on top of the skin.”

The DNA sunscreen has the potential to become a standard, significantly improving the safety of spending time in the sun

The research, which is published today in the journal Scientific Reports, involved the development of thin crystalline DNA films.

These films are transparent in appearance, but able to absorb UV light; when the researchers exposed the film to UV light, they found that its absorption rate improved, meaning the more UV is was exposed to, the more it absorbed.

“If you translate that, it means to me that if you use this as a topical cream or sunscreen, the longer that you stay out on the beach, the better it gets at being a sunscreen,” said German.

The film will no doubt attract the attention of sunscreen manufacturers, who will likely be keen to commercialise such a promising product. However, the researchers have not said if there is any interest as yet, and if there is any clear timeline to it becoming a commercial product.

 

The film’s properties are not just limited to sun protection, however. The DNA film can also store water at a far greater rate than conventional skin, limiting water evaporation and increasing the skin’s hydration.

As a result, the film is also being explored as a wound covering, as it would allow the wound to be protected from the sun, keep it moist – an important factor for improved healing – and allow the wound to be monitored without needing to remove the dressing.

“Not only do we think this might have applications for sunscreen and moisturizers directly, but if it’s optically transparent and prevents tissue damage from the sun and it’s good at keeping the skin hydrated, we think this might be potentially exploitable as a wound covering for extreme environments,” said German.