In certain African countries, observers of a drone overhead would be advised to seek cover.
In recent years, the US has vigorously used drones against al-Qaida affiliated groups on the continent, and operates drone bases in some five African countries. However, in parts of Rwanda and Malawi, the buzz of an approaching drone now signals something rather different: the arrival of vital medical supplies.
On 29th June 2017, to the wonderment of local children who congregated nearby, the Malawian government and UNICEF officially launched a drone corridor to trial the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for development and aid missions. It is Africa’s first drone corridor, and the first in the world developed specifically to address humanitarian challenges.
“Whenever we flew the drones, hundreds of people would come to watch. They felt they were at the forefront of a new technological innovation,” said Michael Scheibenreif, drone corridor lead at UNICEF Malawi.
With their harsh drone regulations and understandable scepticism, most African countries have been missing out on this growing industry, expected to reach $6bn globally by the end of 2017. The Malawi drone corridor reflects changing attitudes on the continent towards UAVs.
The project will run for at least a year. Thus far, 12 companies, NGOs and universities have applied to fly test missions in the corridor, which covers an area of 5,000km2 and contains 301 schools and 486 health service points.
Tests will explore using UAVs for imaging during disasters, connectivity in problematic terrain and transportation of medical supplies and vaccines. “We believe that this technology will transform healthcare, putting anyone within reach of the medicine they need,” said a spokesperson from robotics company Zipline.
UcanDrone, a Greek firm, is using the corridor to test a single UAV that can transport supplies, perform surveying missions and provide internet access. Swedish company GLOBHE, in collaboration with IBM, is testing drones with artificial intelligence to act as early warning systems in emergencies.
“It will be an interesting testing period over the next few months, but we are quite positive in terms of the opportunities this will create in Malawi and beyond,” said Helena Samsioe, CEO of GLOBHE.
Drones can perform vital services in the absence of transportation networks or on tricky terrain. “One of the problems that plagues sub-Saharan Africa is infrastructure,” said Christopher Fabian of UNICEF Ventures.
“Drones give you the ability to leapfrog over the process of building infrastructure.” This is particularly important during earthquakes or floods, when roads can swiftly become rivers. The corridor emerged from a 2016 pilot project in Malawi, where drones replaced cars, motorbikes and donkeys in the transportation of blood samples for early infant HIV diagnosis.
Average transport time was reduced from eight days to 120 minutes. When floods subsequently inundated the towns of Salima, Karonga and Lilongwe, the capital, between February and April of this year, drones were deployed to provide aerial footage.
The Malawi drone corridor challenges recent scepticism towards UAVs from governments across Africa. Some four years ago a plan to supplement postal services with drones in infrastructure-poor northern Kenya floundered when the government expressed security concerns.
Entrepreneurs elsewhere are hamstrung by draconian UAV laws. In Ghana, pilots of unregistered drones can face up to 30 years in prison. In Nigeria, drone operators require permits from both the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority and the National Security Advisor; at up to $4,000, they are prohibitively expensive.
South Africa’s UAV regulations are among the world’s most stringent. Getting a 24-month commercial license costs thousands and requires proficiency in English, a medical examination and two tests. Rulebreakers can be jailed.
Those associated with the corridor hope governments in Africa and beyond will follow its example. “Hopefully the drone corridor will change the perception of drones. They are not only killing machines; there is a huge potential to do something useful with them,” said Scheibenreif.
“The idea is to prove out a utility and a space where this works in Malawi,” said Fabian, allowing other countries to bypass the testing phase and implement the technology directly. Six countries have already approached UNICEF expressing interest in the technology, said Fabian, two of which are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Rwanda already boasts a national daily delivery operation, run by Zipline. Since its launch in October 2016 by President Paul Kagame, it has made over 1,000 flights, transporting blood to 21 hospitals nationwide.
“We’ve seen continued innovation in Rwanda, Tanzania and some other countries on the continent on the regulatory front. These moves have been positive, welcome and I think just the start of a growing trend,” said the Zipline spokesperson, who expects the firm to expand across the continent. Mauritius, too, has made strides in research into humanitarian UAV technology.
In the long term, Africa’s UAV industry could offer impressive investment and employment opportunities. UNICEF is using its $11.2m venture capital fund to endow emerging actors in Africa’s drone community. “We are actively pursuing investments in early-stage tech companies coming out of sub-Saharan Africa,” said Fabian.
The cost of addressing Africa’s infrastructure deficit is estimated to be $90bn a year for the next decade. Drones can deliver vital services, thereby alleviating humanitarian challenges in the absence of physical infrastructure.
“The potential for drones in the humanitarian space is massive,” said James Scanlan, a University of Southampton professor. “The technology is there; it’s just a question of doing it.”