Radical Drone Solution to Woeful Infrastructure in Poor Countries

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

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SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Drones – unpiloted aircraft, formally called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) – have long been used for military purposes. The U.S. military claims to have 7,500 drones – a massive growth from just 50 a decade ago – and has used them for surveillance and combat in conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq.

Drones can cost anywhere between a few thousand and millions of dollars depending on their size and sophistication. Some weigh as little as half a kilogram, and the largest can reach 18,000 kilograms (19 tons).

It is estimated 40 countries around the world are working on drones in one capacity or another.

Military drones come with ominous-sounding names such as Predator, Fire Scout, Global Hawk and Hunter. But many pioneers and innovators are setting out to prove drones can be a technology of peace and development and not just of fear and war.

YouTube provides many examples of drones being tested out as a delivery method. SF Express (http://www.sf-express.com/cn/en/product_service/product_intro/airline_delivery.html), a courier service in Dongguang, China has tried delivering parcels by drone. It is using a drone with eight rotor blades, called an octocopter (http://www.steadidrone.eu/octocopter-ei8ht/).

In Shanghai, the InCake bakery has used drones to deliver cakes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXwgwSkujOY). The service was brought to a halt after complaints from citizens, worried the drone would crash into someone.

The American pizza chain Domino’s has been testing drones for delivering pizza in the United Kingdom (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDXuGQRpvs4). A British company has used drones to deliver sushi to restaurant tables in London (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WV0yQYXLU34).

These may prove to be novelty experiments – or the early days of a revolution. Time will tell.

But serious thinking about drones is taking place in the area of development.

One pioneering company thinks it has a solution for two big problems common to many developing countries: the chaos, congestion and crowding that clog urban areas; and the poor or non-existent infrastructure in rural areas. Both problems make it expensive and time-consuming to move goods around.

A billion people in the world do not have access to all-weather roads, says the World Bank. Some roads are being upgraded in parts of sub-Saharan Africa but many are in worse shape than they were decades ago. Modern infrastructure is expensive to build, and the funds to do it often must be borrowed.

A startup called Matternet thinks it has the solution to getting around this problem in Africa, and in rapidly growing cities of the global South. It believes drones can come to the rescue where infrastructure is poor or non-existent, and save valuable wealth that can be diverted to real improvements in human development, or used to reduce congestion in crowded urban areas.

The Matternet (http://matternet.us/) is billed as “the next paradigm for transportation.” Matternet is offering a system and a concept for deploying drones as a scalable solution to overcome the problem of poor transportation networks in developing countries.

The artist’s vision on Matternet’s website shows drones buzzing their way through an urban high-rise landscape as they go about their business.

The Matternet drone design has two wings with three fans in each wing to allow it to take off and land vertically as well as flying in a straight line. There is a 10 litre space for packages and a rechargeable battery at the bottom of the drone. The drones can fly at 40 kilometres an hour, at an altitude of up to 121 metres and are guided by GPS (Global Positioning System) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Positioning_System).

The drone moves in and out of a ground-station landing pod, where it is recharged, picks up new packages to deliver, and connects electronically to receive instructions. An entry and exit slot sits on top of the pod while there is a place at ground level for people to pop in packages for delivery.

Each vehicle costs US $1,000 and can last 10 years, the makers claim. Matternet believes the drones could transport 2 kilograms over 10 kilometres for just 24 US cents a trip.

Matternet’s Andreas Raptopoulos (https://www.solveforx.com/moonshots/physical-transport) hopes to push Africa away from simply upgrading its infrastructure along the lines of what is already in existence in developed countries. It is estimated it will take Africa another 50 years to have an infrastructure equal to North America. But why wait so long? Why not, he argues, just use drones or UAVs to knit a transport infrastructure criss-crossing the continent delivering goods and services to people?

Radical drone advocates like Matternet are very ambitious. They believe drones are to infrastructure what mobile phones have been to telecommunications: an advanced, 21st-century technology that enables countries to leapfrog ahead of old-school 20th century infrastructure and connect people up for much less cost and effort.

Imagine a city in the global South 15 years from now: canyons of high-rise buildings stretch from the central business district out to the suburbs where apartment towers replace office buildings. And whooshing through these canyons will be the drones carrying everything from takeaway food to medical supplies to the latest fashion items.

Anywhere in Africa can currently contact Matternet to arrange a trial of the technology (http://matternet.us/get-matternet/). The concept had field trials in the Dominican Republic and Haiti in the Caribbean. A large field test trial is being arranged for Lesotho, where the drones will help with delivering supplies to clinics serving patients with HIV/AIDS. The 47 clinics are spread out over a 138 square kilometre area and will be served by 50 ground stations and 150 drones at a cost of US $900,000. In comparison, building 2 kilometres of a single lane road would cost US $1 million.

Matternet is based in Palo Alto, California and founded by partners Andreas Raptopoulos, Paola Santana, Dimitar Pachlov and Darlene Damm.

It was conceived at the Singularity University (http://singularityu.org/) whose mission is to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.

Resources

1) DIY Drones: The Leading Community for Personal UAVs:  This is the home for everything about amateur Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Website: http://diydrones.com/

3DRobotics Inc: 3D Robotics is the leading open source unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology company. It was founded in 2009 by Chris Anderson (founder of DIY Drones) and Jordi Munoz, and today is a professional, venture-backed enterprise with more than 70 employees across three offices in San Diego (engineering), Berkeley (business and sales) and Tijuana (manufacturing). Website: http://store.3drobotics.com/

3) Canadian Centre for Unmanned Vehicle Systems in Medicine Hat: CCUVS is a Canadian national change agent, a non-profit corporation whose purpose is to facilitate sustained, profitable growth of the Canadian unmanned systems sector. Website: http://www.ccuvs.com/

4) Dude!!! I Want That: A gadgets website featuring novel inventions. Website: http://www.dudeiwantthat.com/?keywords=survival

5) Phys.org is a leading web-based science, research and technology news service which covers a full range of topics. These include physics, earth science, medicine, nanotechnology, electronics, space, biology, chemistry, computer sciences, engineering, mathematics and other sciences and technologies. Website: http://phys.org/

6) MIT Humans and Automation Lab: Research in the Humans and Automation Lab (HAL) focuses on the multifaceted interactions of human and computer decision-making in complex sociotechnical systems. With the explosion of automated technology, the need for humans as supervisors of complex automatic control systems has replaced the need for humans in direct manual control. Website: http://web.mit.edu/aeroastro/labs/halab/news.shtml

7) Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI): The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is the world’s largest non-profit organization devoted exclusively to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community. Website: http://www.auvsi.org/Home/

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