While drones may be sold as toys for kids in the U.S., Africa is testing new applications for the that could make it a leader in this hi-tech industry.
Personal and commercial drones are becoming a billion-dollar industry and millions more of the unmanned aircraft are sold every year. Some local leaders in the U.S., however, see them as nuisances that must be curbed.
But in Rwanda, a commercial drone delivery service is now buzzing overhead, delivering blood to almost half of all Rwanda’s blood transfusion centers. A technician sits in a refrigerated room where red blood cells, platelets, plasma and cryoprecipitate are stored. An order comes in from a hospital about two hours away by car. The drone delivers the package in 20 minutes.
Other countries exploring the possibilities of commercial drones are Cameroon, Malawi, South Africa and Kenya.
In Malawi, drones have been deployed to transfer HIV tests to and from rural parts of the country. Elsewhere they’re being used to combat poaching or to augment safaris. A Cameroonian start up named Will & Brothers recently raised $200,000 to begin assembling and producing parts for drones within the country. In Rwanda, another drone company has plans to build what would be the world’s first civilian “drone port” for commercial deliveries and ferrying health supplies.
“There are countless use cases for Africa,” says Moses Gichanga, founder of Autonomous Systems Research, a Kenya-based tech consultancy. With consent from the country’s aviation regulator and local authorities, his company is doing aerial drone tests in Malawi and Uganda’s eastern districts.
Atlan Space, a Morocco-based startup has developed software to use drones for monitoring illegal maritime activities like illegal fishing or oil spills.
The driverless drones and delivery service are built and operated by Zipline, a California-based startup. Since its October launch in Rwanda, Zipline has flown more than 100,000 kilometers, delivering 2,600 units of blood over 1,400 flights.
More like small airplanes than quadcopters – the mechanical birds fly at 100 kms an hour, about 60 miles per hour, and can reach any clinic or hospital within 75 kilometers.
“If we think about Africa in 2050, it won’t be the same story. More people, more security needs, more urbanization, more connectivity [mean] more need of accurate data for maps,” says William Elong, who founded Will & Brothers, which already uses drones for agricultural surveys. Elong says the company has been getting more requests for their drone services in e-commerce and healthcare.
Finally, a contract has been signed with Tanzania which will begin flying HIV medicines, vaccines, anti-malarials from four distribution centers. The first one in Dodoma, the country’s capital, will begin its first flights in the first quarter of 2018.