CAPE TOWN // Amazon Prime Air hopes to eventually dispatch parcels to customers via drones in the United States but across Africa the skies will soon be buzzing as aerial delivery gets underway.
Drones are now being used routinely for pipeline and rig inspections in the UAE and by other energy producers globally, and they also provide low-cost surveying for the mining industry. Getting them to carry goods was, therefore, a next logical step and on the African continent, where distances are vast and infrastructure is poor, they are being taken seriously.
“Infrastructure is without a doubt one of the greatest challenges facing the continent. Commerce each and every day is held back by poor infrastructure, from roads and rail, to water systems and ICT networks, costing Africa an estimated US$40 billion in lost GDP every year,” says the Angolan philanthropist Álvaro Sobrinho, who is the chairman of UK charity Planet Earth Institute.
“No idea should be off the table, delivery drones have the potential to offer a significant boost to African commerce. Delivering and receiving goods in this way could offer a crucial, all year round lifeline to business.”
In addition to package delivery and inspection, drone-supplied vital medical services in countries such as Rwanda and Malawi are being tested.
The San Francisco start-up Zipline recently demonstrated its concept at its test facility in the United States, which will use a fixed-wing mini-aircraft to drop medicine, blood and other time-sensitive items that require refrigeration and would spoil using conventional delivery methods.
“Rwanda is one of the most forward-looking and innovative countries in the world when it comes to health care,” says the Zipline spokesman Justin Hamilton. “Our drones, called Zips, can carry up to 1.5 kilograms of medicine. That’s enough blood to save someone’s life.
“It also has room for multiple doses of vaccine.”
The children’s charity Unicef meanwhile has begun trials delivering blood samples for HIV testing in the southern Africa country of Malawi. Much like Rwanda, the need is to connect rural communities that lack the transport infrastructure needed to facilitate the movement of medical specimens.
Last month the first successful test flight of a “quadrocopter”, a four-rotored drone, completed a 10km flight and landed amid cheering locals, Unicef says.
“Africa is fast becoming an adopter of cutting-edge technologies to overcome its infrastructure gap,” Kamal Bhattacharya the director of IBM Research for Africa, tells Wired.co.uk.
“Commercial drone technology has strong potential there to help overcome the limitations of the continent’s transportation infrastructure and deliver goods and services in remote or regions – spurring new models for business and service delivery.”
Zipline, meanwhile, is using a fixed wing aircraft that weighs a little under 10 kilograms. The conventional design allows for faster flying time and greater range, the company says. On arrival, the package is dropped by parachute for retrieval.
“We’ll be making up to 150 flights a day,” says Mr Hamilton. “So additional cargo needs can be met with additional deliveries. Through this effort, Rwanda has leapfrogged bigger and more technologically advanced countries like the US and now leads the world in UAV innovation.”
While small loads will soon become standard, some believe the future lies with bigger cargo shipments. Hans Heerkens is the chairman of the Platform Unmanned Cargo Aircraft initiative, which imagines a future where many tonnes of cargo could be moved by crewless aircraft.
Speaking from his base in Holland, Mr Heerkens says he has given a series of presentations to aviation specialists across Africa, where the idea is being well received. “It’s possible to fly hundreds of thousands of kilograms hundreds of thousands of kilometres at greatly reduced cost by using autonomous aircraft,” he says. “These would not necessarily be conventional aircraft with their seats removed, but designed especially for moving cargo, without having to keep humans alive and comfortable.”
Without a cabin crew, there is no need for pressurisation and air conditioning and the aircraft could weigh up to 25 per cent less. It could also be designed differently – with the entire nose flipping up to allow easier access to cargo, Mr Heerkens says.
Eventually even the entire fuselage could be dispensed with. All the lift during flight is provided by the wings, with the body essentially dead weight. Cargo aircraft could be redesigned to be flying wings only, reducing weight and fuel consumption.
In a way, Africa’s technology deficit is an advantage, Mr Heerkens adds. Empty skies mean that the continent does not have the regulatory hurdles that are complicating the deployment of pilotless aircraft across the US, Europe and elsewhere where air traffic is heavy.
Outside Rwanda and South Africa, no other country on the continent has laws governing unpiloted aircraft, which makes their deployment a lot easier. Mr Hamilton notes that Zipline is working closely with aviation and military authorities to solve potential problems.
Already some companies are exploring the transport of regular cargo using unmanned aircraft. Kenya’s Astral Aviation, recently valued at about US$50 million, is working with Mr Heerken’s team to find a model best suited to the concept.
“It is likely that Africa will be the largest market in the world for drones, which will be a necessity rather than a luxury,” says the Astral Aviation chief executive Sanjeev Gadhia.
Mr Gadhia says cargo drones would add significant value to Astral’s fixed-wing business in Africa, allowing for shipments to be moved to remote locations that have restricted accessibility. Often what is needed is not a large aircraft, but a smaller “puddle jumper” that could carry loads of anywhere between 500 kilograms and two tonnes, he says.
While such small-capacity craft are commonplace, they still need crews that will require generous salaries to work in some of the less comfortable locations their work might take them. Removing pilots will not only free up space but also reduce the cost of keeping light cargo fleets ready to launch at a moments notice.
Such aircraft are unlikely to be 100 per cent autonomous, being controlled instead from the ground at a flight centre. These “pilots”, though, will probably do little more than issue instructions via a regular computer terminal, letting the aircraft’s on-board avionics to the actual flying, Mr Heerken says.
While the flying part is largely manageable with existing technology, take off and landing may present some unique issues; people and wildlife wandering on to a dusty dirt runway are a constant hazard at remote airports, for instance.
However, such issues can be taken on once aircraft makers, cargo airlines and regulators come together, Mr Heerkens adds.
“The aircraft companies want firm orders before building autonomous cargo carriers; the carriers first want to see what they will look like. And regulators are waiting for them to begin flying to see what the rules should be.
“As soon as someone makes the first move, though, it will move very quickly and we’ll see aircraft without pilots across the African skies.”
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