Can ‘fly­ing don­keys’ save Africa?

Lesotho Times - - Business -

LON­DON — The need for in­fras­truc­tural change in Africa is un­de­ni­able — the con­ti­nent is grow­ing eco­nom­i­cally and needs bet­ter trans­port links.

But build­ing road and rail net­works is ex­pen­sive and dif­fi­cult.

The World Bank es­ti­mates that Africa needs to spend $38 bil­lion (M413 bil­lion) more each year on in­fra­struc­ture — plus a fur­ther $37 bil­lion on op­er­a­tions and main­te­nance — just to sus­tain its cur­rent level of devel­op­ment. So what’s the an­swer? Could it be cargo drones — or “fly­ing don­keys” as one Kenyan farmer put it?

Cargo routes Afrotech, a tech­nol­ogy in­no­va­tion project set up by the Ecole Polytech­nique Fed­erale de Lau­sanne (EPFL) in Switzer­land, cer­tainly thinks so.direc­tor Jonathan Ledgard, a for­mer for­eign cor­re­spon­dent in Africa, thinks they will en­able the con­ti­nent to leapfrog tra­di­tional in­fra­struc­ture devel­op­ment and grow faster eco­nom­i­cally.

Next year, through its spin-off com­pany Red/blue, Afrotech will begin testing cargo drones ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing small packages across dis­tances of up to 80km The first route will be a “red line” fly­ing units of blood to re­mote health clin­ics.

“We want to prove very ro­bustly that we can clin­i­cally save lives and im­prove med­i­cal out­comes by us­ing cargo drones,” says Mr Ledgard.

But where ex­actly th­ese routes will be is still up for ne­go­ti­a­tion.

The con­sor­tium is cur­rently talk­ing to a hand­ful of gov­ern­ments in East, Cen­tral and South­ern Africa over the ac­qui­si­tion of 10,000 sq km of airspace for three years to test the con­cept.

Com­mer­cial po­ten­tial The hope is that once the “red line” hu­man­i­tar­ian routes have been es­tab­lished and proven to work, this will open up the po­ten­tial for “blue line” — in other words com­mer­cial ser­vices — to op­er­ate in cities.

“What we are try­ing is go­ing to be faster, cheaper and more pre­cise de­liv­er­ing,” he says. “Phys­i­cal ter­res­trial in­fra­struc­ture is not go­ing to be enough by a long shot.

“The big money — and it will be huge money — will be in the com­mer­cial blue line. In­dus­try will take care of that.”

He en­vis­ages e-com­merce com­pa­nies us­ing cargo drones for de­liv­er­ies, lit­er­ally ris­ing above Africa’s poor trans­port in­fra­struc­ture.“there will be big money, bil­lions of dol­lars, in th­ese blue lines within a decade, I’m sure of it,” he says.drones could ac­count for 10%-to-15% of Africa’s trans­port sec­tor in the next decade, he be­lieves.

Pie in the sky? But are “fly­ing don­keys” re­ally a fea­si­ble op­tion for Africa? Uni­ver­sity of Southamp­ton’s Pro­fes­sor Jim Scan­lan, who is testing the po­ten­tial for cargo drones in Scot­land’s Shet­land and Orkney Is­lands, be­lieves so. In the same way that Africa em­braced the mo­bile phone and leapfrogged fixed line tele­phony, “they will do the same with trans­porta­tion,” he says.

“It is so ex­pen­sive to put in road or rail net­works, so they will start us­ing drones.”in his test ar­eas, where ad­verse weather con­di­tions make driv­ing cars and fly­ing air­craft dif­fi­cult, Prof Scan­lan says drones are prov­ing their worth.“drones would be safer, and save lives.

And it is cheap,” he says, adding that his team could cur­rently build a func­tion­ing drone for the cost of a tra­di­tional white van.

Oliver Evans, chief cargo of­fi­cer of Swiss In­ter­na­tional Air Lines, thinks there is “no doubt” that un­manned ve­hi­cles are one of the most ex­cit­ing new tech­nolo­gies.

“If they sound ex­otic, out­landish, or even threat­en­ing due to their ap­pli­ca­tion in the sin­gle field of war­fare, that is only due to the gen­eral lack of aware­ness or imag­i­na­tion,” he says.

Heavy lift­ing But the lift­ing ca­pa­bil­ity of drones will be an is­sue. Cur­rent civil­ian drone tech­nol­ogy lim­its cargo pack­age weight to about 9kg max­i­mum. Adding more ro­tors to a he­li­copter­style drone gives you more lift but re­quires more bat­tery power.

This adds weight which then re­duces the dis­tance you can travel be­fore need­ing a recharge. Fixed wing drones will also be a pos­si­bil­ity as they are more aero­dy­namic and ef­fi­cient over longer dis­tances.

But copter drones have the ad­van­tage that they can take off and land ver­ti­cally in tight spa­ces.what­ever their shape, cargo drones ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing 20-30kg ef­fi­ciently are un­likely to be in op­er­a­tion un­til around un­til 2021 or 2022, Mr Ledgard be­lieves.

“But they are in­evitable and they are go­ing to be trans­for­ma­tive,” he says.

The Fly­ing Don­key Chal­lenge, run by La Fondation Bundi and sup­ported by EPFL and the Swiss Na­tional Cen­tre of Com­pe­tence for Re­search in Ro­bot­ics ( NCCR), is giv­ing grants to fund drone devel­op­ment in the hope that th­ese phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions can be over­come.

he Chal­lenge will cul­mi­nate in a race of fly­ing don­keys around Mount Kenya in un­der 24 hours, de­liv­er­ing and col­lect­ing 20kg pay­loads as they go.

Yves Rossy, known as Jet­man for his habit of scorch­ing through the air with a rocket-pow­ered fixed­wing strapped to his back, is an ad­vi­sory board mem­ber of the Fly­ing Don­key Chal­lenge.

Safety con­cerns? But it’s not just tech­nol­ogy that needs to im­prove to make fly­ing don­keys a re­al­ity in­ern­ments and safety au­thor­i­ties need to put in place reg­u­la­tory frame­works to ac­com­mo­date this new form of trans­port.


Com­pa­nies like Deutsche post and ama­zon have been ex­per­i­ment­ing with cargo drones

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