Could drones be a solution to Africa’s infrastructure problems?

In the past year or so, drones have increasingly been mentioned as a possible solution to Africa’s infrastructure problems, helping the continent leapfrog poor or non-existent road and rail networks straight into air transportation.

Although drones are more infamously known for their applications in security – such as surveillance and targeted executions – but Africa’s cargo drone highway came closer to reality last week when futurist organisation Afrotech and British architects Foster + Partners launched proposals for a “droneport” in Rwanda to help get cargo to communities with poor access to roads.

Cargo drones are small pilotless airplanes designed to transport packages across distances of 80km or so.

According to Afrotech, the first cargo robot route could be operating in Rwanda by 2016. Although at present, the maximum weight that can be carried is around 9kg, the company belives that by 2020, the flying robot technology will be capable of taking 20kg over distances of several hundred kilometres.

The architects points out that it is unlikely that countries will be able to invest sufficient capital in road and rail provision to meet the needs of the continent’s future population, which is expected to double to 2.2 billion by 2050.

According to World Bank estimates, Africa needs to spend $38 billion more each year on infrastructure – plus a further $37billion on operations and maintenance – just to sustain its current level of development.

If the continent is to completely seal its infrastructure gap, some $93 billion per year for the next decade will need to be invested.

The use of cargo robots represents therefore a vital “infrastructural leap” to providing towns and villages with access to emergency aid, as well as commercial goods even where road and rail networks are poor.

Afrotech is a department of Swiss research university Lausanne Polytechnic, set up specifically to pioneer advanced technologies that can be deployed in sub-Saharan Africa.

Many companies, including Amazon and Google, have already been looking into the commercial potential of unmanned flying vehicles, which to date have typically been used for surveillance and filming purposes. Drones are already being used in countries like Zimbabwe to track elephant and rhino poachers.

Rwanda is an ideal location to test out the impact of the commercial drone highway, said Jonathan Ledgard of Afrotech. The country – and the same could be said for much of Africa – has a relatively open airspace.

Rwanda, for example, has just a handful of commercial flights in and out of the country each day, while in industrial countries, the skies are dense not just with planes but power lines, making drones more of a nuisance.

Northern Ethiopia, too, features remote villages and steep mountain passes connected by winding dirt roads. Cargo drone delivery could find many applications in these, and other, contexts.

The drone lines will initially be on two routes – a “red line” that will carry small packages of emergency units blood to remote health clinics, and later, a “blue line” or commercial routes for the delivery of conventional cargo ordered online.

Drones could account for 10% -15% of Africa’s transport sector in the next decade, Legard believes.

The initial plan for Rwanda is to build three buildings that will enable the network to send supplies to nearly half of the country by 2020, the droneport proposal shows. Subsequent phases of the project could involve more than 40 droneports, rolled out like a network of petrol stations.

But the game changer could be if the project successfully expands into neighbouring countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo – another densely populated but very poorly connected country.

DR Congo is the eleventh-largest country on Earth by area (2.3 million sq. kilometres) and the 19th largest by population (73 million people) has less than 3,000 km of all-weather paved road, which would be barely enough to cross the 2,500 km-wide country in any direction, let alone service its population.

Making things worse is that only half of that paltry amount of all-weather road is in good condition. Cars are useless, trucks break down constantly and can be stuck for days, weeks, or months.  This leaves bicycles as the main method of land transportation in the DRC.

If there is a country that needs to leapfrog its transport issues, DR Congo is it.

This article is published in collaboration with Mail & Guardian Africa. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Christine Mungai is a writer & journalist with Mail & Guardian Africa.

Image: An official releases a drone quadcopter to monitor activity. REUTERS/Beawiharta. 

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