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.”

Google’s Alphabet is Developing the Neighbourhood of the Future in Toronto

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has announced that Sidewalk Labs, its urban innovation unit, will design a high-tech neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront. The neighbourhood, called Quayside, will prioritise, “environmental sustainability, affordability, mobility and economic opportunity”.

The initial phase for the development, part of the broader Sidewalk Toronto project, has received a $50m commitment from Sidewalk, but is predicted to cost at least a billion dollars by the time it’s fully completion.

As part of the broader project, Quayside seems to be the first attempt at creating what Sidewalk refers to as a “new kind of mixed-use, complete community”, an attempt the company presumably hopes to eventually expand across the waterfront and ultimately into other cities.

“This will not be a place where we deploy technology for its own sake, but rather one where we use emerging digital tools and the latest in urban design to solve big urban challenges in ways that we hope will inspire cities around the world,” Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said on Tuesday.

Early concept images for the neighbourhood include self-driving cars and other infrastructure technologies. Images courtesy of Sidewalk Toronto

Located in the primarily publicly-owned 800-acre area called Port Lands, Quayside looks to be the test bed for potential future community design. With the planning process for the development starting with a community town hall on the 1st of November, we are still some ways off from knowing just what the neighbourhood will look like, but early illustrations include bikeshares, apartment housing, bus lines and parks.

More importantly, however, is Doctoroff’s previous discussions of what he believes future city design will look like. Technology focused, there’s been mention of sensors that track energy usage, machine learning and using high-speed internet to improve urban environments.

Specifically, at a summit hosted by The Information last year, he mentioned “thinking about [a city] from the internet up”. As would be expected from a company under the same parent as Google, Sidewalk seems to be concentrated on development that prioritises innovation and building communities with an eye to how technology can help found neighbourhoods.

“I like to describe it that we’re in the very early stages of what I call the fourth revolution of urban technology,” Doctoroff previously told Business Insider.

“The first three were the steam engine, which brought through trains and factories that industrialized cities. The second was the electric grid, which made cities 24 hours, made them more vertical, made them easier to get around in with subways and streetcars.

“The third was the automobile, which forced us to really re-think the use of public space in order to protect people from the danger of the automobile. We’re now in the fourth one. We’ve had an urban technology revolution … We’re seeing a real change in the physical nature of our cities.”

DJI’s First Drone Arena in Tokyo to Open This Saturday

Consumer drone giant DJI will open its first Japanese drone arena in the city of Tokyo this Saturday, providing a space for both hardened professionals and curious newcomers to hone their flying skills.

The arena, which covers an area of 535 square metres, will not only include a large flying area complete with obstacles, but also offer a store where visitors can purchase the latest DJI drones and a technical support area where drone owners can get help with quadcopter issues.

The hope is that the arena will allow those who are curious about the technology but currently lack the space to try it out to get involved.

“As interest around our aerial technology continues to grow, the DJI Arena concept is a new way for us to engage not just hobbyists but also those considering this technology for their work or just for the thrill of flying,” said Moon Tae-Hyun, DJI’s director of brand management and operations.

“Having the opportunity to get behind the remote controller and trying out the technology first hand can enrich the customer experience. When people understand how it works or how easy it is to fly, they will discover what this technology can do for them and see a whole new world of possibilities.”

Images courtesy of DJI

In addition to its general sessions, which will allow members of the public to drop by and try their hand at flying drones, the arena will also offer private hire, including corporate events. For some companies, then, drone flying could become the new golf.

There will also be regular events, allowing pros to compete against one another, and drone training, in the form of DJI’s New Pilot Experience Program, for newcomers.

The arena has been launched in partnership with Japan Circuit, a developer of connected technologies, including drones.

“We are extremely excited to partner with DJI to launch the first DJI Arena in Japan,” said Tetsuhiro Sakai, CEO of Japan Circuit.

“Whether you are a skilled drone pilot or someone looking for their first drone, we welcome everyone to come and learn, experience it for themselves, and have fun. The new DJI Arena will not only serve as a gathering place for drone enthusiasts but also help us reach new customers and anyone interested in learning about this incredible technology.”

The arena is the second of its kind to be launched by DJI, with the first located in Yongin, South Korea, and detailed in the video above. .

Having opened in 2016, the area has attracted visitors from around the world, demonstrating serious demand for this type of entertainment space.

If the Tokyo launch goes well, it’s likely DJI will look at rolling out its arena concept to other cities, perhaps even bringing the model to the US and Europe.

For now, however, those who are interested can book time at the Tokyo arena here.