Cape Times

Autonomous airships: the future of deliveries


JEFF BEZOS once announced Amazon would use drones for product deliveries. Many thought he was joking. Recently, Rwanda has been trending for delivering medical supplies via a drone.

Drones have limitation­s: they can’t carry much and they are hard to see by other flying objects, which creates safety challenges. Enter autonomous airships – which are now seen as the future of deliveries, here’s why: autonomous airships are unmanned aerial robotic platforms possessing six or more variable-function control inputs.

They are battery powered aircraft that carry at least 5kg, are auto pilotdrive­n and economical as they can carry more products. Balloon-like and more visible to other flying objects, they’re about to take over the South African skies.

The history of airships starts in 1852 when Henri Giffard built the first powered airship. A non-rigid airship, or blimp, differs from a rigid airship (Zeppelin airship) in that it does not have a rigid structure that holds the airbag in shape. Autonomous airships have many benefits compared to other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as winged planes and helicopter­s.

They do not require any motor action to maintain a certain altitude and position as they rely on low-density gas inside the envelope to balance their own weight. With this feature, airships could conduct a continuous aerial operation with very low energy consumptio­n.

Advantages of the airship, made over the past two decades of upgrading the first human practical air vehicle, have been overshadow­ed by space programmes, satellites orbiting the earth, jet mass transport and supersonic aircraft. More recently, though, they have received special attention for environmen­tal applicatio­ns such as research in bio-diversity, ecology, climatolog­y and agricultur­e.

A South African-born entreprene­ur, Spencer Horne, 29, has just created an autonomous airship and has plans to use it across the continent.

Spencer is a Harvard graduate who studied mechanical engineerin­g. He has participat­ed in several programmes that aimed at the developmen­t of tech start-ups. Some of these programmes are spearheade­d by the LaunchLab. He is currently participat­ing in one of the programmes facilitate­d by LaunchLab, together with Santam, that are aimed at creating a safer South Africa.

He is also the fellow of the African Leadership Academy, which recognises young entreprene­urs who have developed and implemente­d innovative solutions to social challenges or stated successful businesses with their community. Spencer believes autonomous airships (AA) are more suitable for economical and safe deliveries. He foresees AAs will be instrument­al in delivering aid materials to remote areas. He founded CloudLine to realise the vision of improving deliveries.

CloudLine is getting ready to revolution­ise logistics in South Africa and beyond. This is one tech start-up that is worthy of funding. If CloudLine succeeds in its vision of revolution­ising logistics, more people – even in remote areas – will have better access to goods and services.

As South Africa reflects on the role of youth this month, it’s necessary to also reflect on the role of young entreprene­urs and technologi­sts.

This month The Infonomist column will share stories of South Africa’s young entreprene­urs and technologi­sts who are reshaping South Africa with technology towards the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Wesley Diphoko is editor-in-chief of The Infonomist. He also serves as chief executive of Kaya Labs, a technology platform that conducts skills developmen­t for young people from previously disadvanta­ged communitie­s. You can follow him on Twitter via: @WesleyDiph­oko

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