Drones (2)

Drones are set to transform delivery infrastructure. This article postulates how it could be particularly revolutionary in Africa where mobile phones have allowed a leapfrogging over poor, or none existent, terrestrial telephone networks.

"Cargo drones may transform Africalong before autonomous ships, cars, or UAVs operate commercially virtually anywhere in the industrialized world. J.M. Ledgard, a long-time Africa correspondent for The Economist, and director of the future Africa initiative at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, is spearheading a radical but potentially significant plan to deploy the world‟s first commercial-drone-cargo-delivery network, expected to begin service in 2016. The first route will be about 80 kilometers long, connecting several towns and villages, with initial cargo drones carrying small payloads, ferrying urgent medical supplies to hospitals and assisting during humanitarian emergencies.

Africa is a perfect candidate for cargo drones. The continent has a $50 billion and rising shortfall on annual public infrastructure spendingwith no money for tunnels or bridges, or even road maintenance. There is still no road connecting East Africa with West Africa, and existing roads in the Democratic Republic of Congo have deteriorated so much that an hour‟s drive in 1960 at the time of the country‟s independence from Belgium, now takes a full day. Costs to pave roads have risen sharply in recent years, with budget overruns of 100% frequent and secondary roads  more expensive per kilometer than longer arterials. Africa has 2% of the world‟s motor vehicles, but accounts for 16% of the world‟s traffic deathsrepresenting the third highest cause of death after malaria and HIV-Aids.

Demographics present significant long-term challenges for Africa. High- fertility rates indicate that by 2050, the continent will have 2.7 billion people, up from 228 million in 1950. However, many key economies, like Nigeria, Kenya and Senegal are not transforming fast enough to create jobs for the continent‟s burgeoning youth. Half of Africa‟s population is under age 19, and the ratio of African youth to European youth will rise from 2.2:1 to 4:1 before 2025. Many will be highly educated with access to modern technology, but will be forced to survive on day labor or subsistence farming.

Enter cargo drones. Ledgard foresees the modern “donkeys” helping small companies grow through e-commerce, because they can extend the range of businesses beyond big cities. Within a decade, “donkey” stations will have shops enabling consumers to purchase goods on a tablet or mobile phone and have them delivered by the cargo drone from a distant warehouse. “In effect, the back room of the village shop will stretch out of sight, with unlimited choices and low prices,” highlights Ledgard. Rather than being disruptive, cargo drones represent a supplementary transport system in Africa, helping to create jobs, not only through productivity gains, but also through their construction, use, and maintenance.

The drone network architecture will be simple. “Donkeys” will only be able to fly in a geo-fenced air corridor about 200 meters wide and 150 meters high, with busier routes resembling a high-speed ski gondola, but without cables or supporting structures. For Phase-1 of the deployment, Ledgard has identified 80-kilometer routes in Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda, with other prospective countries for early routes including Angola, Zambia, Ethiopia, Namibia, and South Africa. Routes can also be strung together to extend range. Additional early adopters will deliver small payloads to government offices, mines, oil and gas installations, ranches and conservancies. In Phase-2, as the technology improves and costs fall, industrial users will harness the power of cargo drones. For instance, the spare-parts industry in southeast Nigeria will be connected to cities by drones, with construction and mining equipment companies carrying their large parts inventories to job sites as needed in 10-kilo payloads. In Phase-3, geographic range will expand, connecting businesses with customers across Africa. Ledgard believes the impact of cargo drones is underestimated— much as how mobile phones were viewed in the early 2000s. Safaricom‟s business plan in 2003 was to have 500,000 mobile phone subscribers by 2013, but now has 21 million users in Kenya. ―This future will be radical,‖ underscores Ledgard. ―And yes, cargo drones will be useful in wealthy countries with dispersed populations. But the biggest opportunity is in Africa. Many people are going to save a lot of lives and make a lot of money putting the donkey there first."


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