Drones for devel­op­ment

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Un­manned aerial ve­hi­cles have pop­u­lated both the imag­i­na­tion and night­mares of peo­ple around the world in re­cent years. In April, the United States Navy an­nounced an ex­per­i­men­tal pro­gramme called LO­CUST (Low-Cost UAV Swarm­ing Tech­nol­ogy), which of­fi­cials prom­ise will “au­tonomously over­whelm an ad­ver­sary” and thus “pro­vide Sailors and Marines a de­ci­sive tac­ti­cal ad­van­tage.” With a name and a mission like that – and given the spotty eth­i­cal track record of drone war­fare – it is lit­tle won­der that many are queasy about the con­tin­ued pro­lif­er­a­tion of fly­ing ro­bots.

But the industrial use of the lower sky is here to stay. More than 3 mln hu­mans are in the air daily. Ev­ery large hu­man set­tle­ment on our planet is con­nected to an­other by air trans­port. DJI, a Chi­nese UAV man­u­fac­turer, is seek­ing a $10 bln val­u­a­tion. Cargo drones will grow into an even larger in­dus­try in the com­ing years, sim­ply be­cause, un­en­cum­bered by the weight of hu­mans and their life­sup­port sys­tems, they will fly more cheaply but be just as fast and safe.

In rich coun­tries, early in­ter­est in cargo drones has fo­cused on the so-called last mile – a tub of sor­bet onto a sub­ur­ban lawn. But the big­ger op­por­tu­ni­ties are in fly­ing the mid­dle mile in poorer coun­tries. Some 800 mln peo­ple around the world have limited ac­cess to emer­gency ser­vices, and that will not change in the fore­see­able fu­ture, be­cause there will not be enough money to build roads to connect them. By fly­ing medium-size loads mid­dling dis­tances to many of th­ese iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties, cargo drones can save lives and cre­ate jobs.

Cargo drones em­body what Jim Yong Kim, the pres­i­dent of the World Bank, calls the “science of de­liv­ery.” We know what we need to de­liver: the so­lu­tions to many of our most press­ing prob­lems al­ready ex­ist. The ques­tion is how.

An­swer­ing that ques­tion is why hu­man­i­tar­i­ans, roboti­cists, ar­chi­tects, lo­gis­ti­cians, and oth­ers have joined to­gether in a new ini­tia­tive called Red Line, a Swiss-based con­sor­tium to ac­cel­er­ate devel­op­ment of emer­gency cargo drones and build the world’s first droneports – in Africa.

It sounds techno-utopian – or at least like a huge waste of re­sources. Af­ter all, the ex­pe­ri­ence of the most suc­cess­ful devel­op­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions sug­gests that we should be skep­ti­cal about ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy’s power to bring about mean­ing­ful change for the poor. Yes, the fall­ing cost of pro­cess­ing power cre­ates new ef­fi­cien­cies, par­tic­u­larly in smartphones and re­lated sky-fi con­nec­tiv­ity. But gad­gets are mostly blink­ing bling. It is bor­ing stuff like low-cost teacher train­ing, com­mu­nity health care, and ap­pren­tice­ships that pro­duces re­sults for the poor.

That is why many devel­op­ment ex­perts favour “fru­gal in­no­va­tion” over tech­nol­ogy. The Bangladesh-based BRAC, the world’s largest devel­op­ment NGO, has 1.3 mln chil­dren en­rolled in one-room schools – and hardly a lap­top in sight.

So why be op­ti­mistic about cargo drones? Sil­i­con Val­ley speaks the bull­dozer lan­guage of “dis­rup­tion,” but one rea­son to favour cargo drones is pre­cisely that they are not dis­rup­tive at all. In­stead, they can aug­ment ex­ist­ing dis­tri­bu­tion net­works in re­mote re­gions of Africa, Asia, and Latin Amer­ica where poverty and dis­ease are per­va­sive, dis­tances are great, and roads will never be built.

Cargo drones are par­tic­u­larly well suited to the so-called lo­cala­gent de­liv­ery model. Com­pa­nies and or­gan­i­sa­tions have shown that in hard-to-reach places in Africa and South Asia, women trained as mi­cro-en­trepreneurs are of­ten best po­si­tioned to de­liver es­sen­tial goods and ser­vices to their vil­lages, even if they have limited lit­er­acy and for­mal ed­u­ca­tion. BRAC’s com­mu­nity health work­ers, for ex­am­ple, work en­tirely on a mi­crofran­chis­ing ba­sis, mak­ing their money from mar­gins on sales of ba­sic com­modi­ties like de­worm­ing med­i­ca­tion, anti-malar­ial drugs, and con­tra­cep­tives.

Though cargo drones will never re­place ground trans­port, they can en­sure that vi­tal goods and ser­vices get to where they are needed. Mo­bile phones took off in Africa be­cause the tech­nol­ogy was so much cheaper than in­vest­ment in land­line in­fra­struc­ture. The same can be said to­day about Africa’s roads. Like the mo­bile phone, the cargo drone can prove to be the rarest of crea­tures: a gad­get that works for those who need it most.

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