Drones as a leapfrog technology

Read an article the other day in Wired, A radical but possible plan to connect Africa nations with cargo drones about one organizations plan to use autonomous drones to deliver cargo across national boundaries.  The first cargo route is to be about 80km long and connect a number of towns and villages, to deliver small amounts of cargo via drones.

We have talked before about how mobile phones and cloud were a leapfrog technologies that were bringing Africa into the 21st century (see The rise of mobile and the death of the rest, Is cloud a leapfrog technology?, & mobile health (mHealth) takes off in Kenya). But cargo drones?

Yes mobile phones have allowed something of an information infrastructure, banking, mHealth and other services to come about in nations that lacked hard phone line infrastructure. And Internet and broadband services via balloons, dirigibles, and solar powered drones is feasible and starting to be discussed (see: Google balloon internet experiment, one year later). But information is not all there is to commerce these days.

The problem

Roadways and transport infrastructure in general seem to be a major stumbling block in Africa today. Ever since the European nations exited their colonies in Africa, the meagre transportation infrastructure they had created has been neglected.  Since then, post-colonial rule hasn’t done much to add to this infrastructure and by this time many roadways have become almost un-traverseable by anything but a 4 wheel drive vehicle and then only in low gear at slow speed.

Enter the cargo drone. With an autonomous cargo drone that can deliver goods from one place to another through the air, there is no need for roadways. Cargo drones would seem to allow developing countries to do away with interstates, highways and inter-city transport. Skipping the creation and maintenance of roadways would save millions if not billions of dollars on pavement alone, let alone trucks, diesel fuel, gas stations, etc.

The (partial) solution

Cargo drones are only a partial solution because at the moment they don’t move people. But moving cargo can be a big help to jumpstart an economy to distribute product, pharmaceutical, produce, etc. around or across a nation.

Autonomous drones can be used to deliver cargo from one village to the next, across forests, hills, rivers, and streams without having to build roads, bridges or tunnels. It’s no longer  necessary to have roads anymore, you just need smart enough drones to take your products to market.

At the start the drones will only travel in an “air corridor”. The routes will be closer to the earth than normal flying aircraft and will be “geo fenced” on each side so that the drones don’t stray outside the established corridor. No doubt there will be one-way traffic lanes in the corridor, exit (landing) lanes, entrance lanes, etc. It will look like an express way in the sky.

In order for this to be feasible and scaleable across the continent, cargo drones will need to fly completely autonomously, without human intervention.  It’s assumed that they will have some sort of parachute device that can safely lower them to the ground in the case of mishap or malfunction. Presumably they would communicate back to some central nerve center for dronecraft control, weather, traffic, and other information to help them “understand” how to get where they need to go.

Early on there will likely be a number of different drone models that are tailor made for small amounts of cargo and different flight characteristics, but over time it’s believed that they will eventually be able to transport 80kg of cargo in all sorts of weather from point to point. One suggestion is that they support vertical take off and landing which should eliminate the need for runways as they would just need a landing pad.

It’s also assumed that the drones will run on batteries. So battery power and weight will likely be limiting factors for the time being. When not flying, the drones would be housed, in open hangers, where they could be serviced, loaded/unloaded and charged up with solar/wind power for their next trip.

As far as aiding cross nation cargo traffic, it’s believed that cargo delivered by drones could be more easily tracked, taxed and monitored for export/import restrictions.

Cargo drone nation

80kg units seems awfully small amounts of cargo to be transporting around a country or across nations. In 2002 (last data available) US truck traffic moved ~11.7B tons of stuff (see: FHWA report). USA’s population in 2002 was 288.4M (see: Census report) which says tractor trailers moved about ~41 tons of stuff  per person in 2002. Now I have no idea how much of that haulage was for personal consumption vs. inputs to factories/farms or outputs to garbage dumps but even 10% of that is 4.1T or 3.7MT (Metric Ton=1000Kg) of stuff/person/year or ~46 80kg cargo drone flights/person/year.

But that’s the US. We consume much more than the developing world. Using just energy alone we have ~5% of the world’s population and consume 24% of the world’s energy. So maybe we consume 3-7X what the rest of the world get’s by on.  So we should probably divide that 3.7MT of cargo by 5  and now we are down to 740Kg/person or so a year/person. This would be ~9 cargo drone flights/person/year, which seems entirely doable for small populations.

So maybe cargo drones can help transition a developing economy away from land based, truck transport, at least between cities, villages and towns.

We haven’t even touched on rail traffic yet or people transport between cities, towns and villages. But maybe cargo drones can fix these as well – flying cars anyone.


 Photo credit(s): GERMANY-COMPANY-LOGISTICS-POST-DRONE, by scrolleditorial