Long associated with global wars, unmanned aircraft, or drones, are assuming a new role especially in Africa.
In Africa, drones play a key role in humanitarian services from delivery of medical supplies to remote areas, mapping of displaced people, fighting poaching and assisting in precision farming. This, even as research institutions embrace them to tackle some of the most biting problems, including mapping cholera outbreaks and mosquito breeding sites.
And while the rest of the world still remains apprehensive about moving drones from warzones and instituting strict legislation on drone use, Africa has leant into the chaos, with certain countries becoming the world’s first in developing guides for governments to legislate drone usage while others have introduced testing platforms that allow governments and other interested parties to test how drones can assist in service delivery.
One of the greatest success stories in the African drone revolution is Rwanda. The government working with Silicon Valley company Zipline, have championed one of the greatest breakthroughs in blood transportation through the use of drones.
On average, Rwanda collects 60,000 and 80,000 units of blood each year. But being a predominantly rural country, that blood is received by patients who desperately need it either too late or goes bad if it stays in health facilities, especially the rural ones, for long due to lack of refrigeration equipment. It takes up to six hours to deliver this blood to patients due to rough terrain, a situation that means life and death in cases of emergencies.
Now Zipline is changing this narrative by cutting delivery time to 30 minutes while ensuring that hospitals don’t have to stock blood they do not need.
When blood is needed in these health facilities, doctors place their orders through WhatsApp or SMS to Zipline nerve centre where blood is stored after being delivered by the National Centre for Blood Transfusion. Officials at the centre then scan the blood into the system to let the Ministry of Health know where the blood is going before packing it in padded boxes and placing it into a zip, the miniature autonomous airplanes that run on batteries.
The zip is then fired by a catapult into the sky and from there it is autonomous. The air traffic controller at the Zipline’s base then informs the Rwanda air traffic control of the zip’s flight path. A minute before it drops the package, the doctor at the designated facility then receives an SMS alerting them to prepare to pick the package which is dropped via a paper parachute.
“Because doctors are able to get what they need instantly they stock less blood at the hospitals therefore reducing wastage. In fact in the recent past, zero units of blood have expired in these hospitals. Maternal health is a challenge world- over. The main difference is that Rwanda was the first country to use radical technology to do something about it”, said Keller Rinaudo the CEO and co-founder of Zipline while delivering his presentation at TedTalk.
This technology has now moved to Tanzania and Ghana where the company hopes to leverage on the growing health needs and governments’ interest in disruptive technology.
“These kinds of leaps generate compound gains. For example Rwanda by investing in this kind of infrastructure for healthcare now has an aerial logistics network that they can use to catalyse other parts of their economy like agriculture or e-commerce,” added Mr. Ricardo.
In South Sudan, decades of conflict, deforestation and drought have turned millions of fertile farms into deserts which has seen tens of millions of citizens flee as chronic hunger sets in. It would take decades to re-green the expansive East African country. But two South Sudanese innovators, Mohammed Alhatim Ahmed Ibrahim and Hatem Mubarak Hassan who run a tech startup, Massive Dynamics, have come up with an innovative way of using drones to save the country from further desertification.
They have invented what is a “flying robot farmer”, a drone that will plant seeds of the Acacia tree from the sky to tame soil erosion. The roots of the tree runs deep and are believed to be a buffer in preventing the movement of the sand. The drone will also carry an assessment of crop and soil health allowing researchers to understand what is needed to tackle crop failure.
“A great motivating factor for the impressive uptake of drones for development in Africa is due to the failures of the 20th century infrastructure like the transport network, especially road and rail, that are now dilapidated and cannot match the growing needs of especially those in hinterlands. The massive opportunities the UAVs are opening up to Africa especially among the expansive young population and the pace at which they are delivering results have endeared them more to the continent which is now a frontrunner in this aspect of disruptive technology,” said Julius Ratemo a senior researcher at Technical University of Kenya, one of the institutions in the region that has invested in UAV training.
And to tackle the devastating effects of poaching, illegal fishing and deforestation, ATLAN Space, a Morocco-based startup has invested in drones which are fed with information on illegal fishing hotspots. In the event that the drone detects a boat, using artificial intelligence, it is able to classify what type of a boat it is, whether it is authorised for fishing and if it is cruising in a protected marine area. Should it find out that the operations of the vessel are illegal, it then captures the vessel’s location, the number of people on board and the identification number details that are shared with authorities via satelite. This reduces the work and cost involved in using coast guard vessels for patrol and surveillance.
South Africa passed drone legislation three years ago which laid out guidelines for drone operations, and has seen an increase in drone activities especially for humanitarian services. The country has successfully used drones to tame the devastating poaching menace that has seen hundreds of rhinos and elephants killed in major parks. The drones complement the boots on the ground by raising a timely alarm on any incursions.
Malawi, on the other hand, has since 2017 been running a one-of its-kind programme in partnership with UNICEF dubbed Malawi’s Drone Test Corridor that has opened doors to NGOs and private sector players to test drones for humanitarian activities in controlled environments.
With more institutions looking at innovative services that drones can address, enthusiastic African governments that are seeing immediate value for UAVs and booming young population that is finding jobs and thrills in drones, the continent is set to redefine drone business in years to come.