• Fast Company: Can Cargo Drones Bring E-Commerce To Africa?

    Fast Company: Can Cargo Drones Bring E-Commerce To Africa?

    Africa is the leapfrog continent. As it develops and grows, much of its population is adopting the latest technologies, like cell phones and mobile banking, and completely skipping old-school infrastructure, like landline networks, PCs, and brick-and-mortar ATMs.

    A growing number of people are asking: Why shouldn’t this idea apply to the continent’s commerce and shipping, too?

    And what will Africa leapfrog to? Flying robots, drones, unmanned aerial vehicles–whatever you’d like to call them, they’re coming, and they’re bringing packages.

    As drones enter the popular zeitgeist, media in the U.S. joke about the pilotless machines delivering silly stuff like tacos and pizza right to our doorstep. But in Africa, shipping via drone is a much more serious proposition–a lag in transit infrastructure could be a major snag in what’s expected to be the continent’s explosive economic growth over the coming decades, according to the African Development Bank. Forget human travels. If goods can’t get quickly to markets or customers, that’s going to be a big choke point.

    “We actually think the sky is the place to go,” says Jonathan Ledgard, head of the Afrotech project at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and former longtime Africa correspondent for the Economist.

    Ledgard and roboticist colleagues at EPFL are now launching what they are calling the Flying Donkey Challenge to take shipping to the skies in Africa. The name is inspired by a discussion they had trying to explain the idea of delivery robots to an elder Samburu tribesman in Northern Kenya–he scratched his head at first, and then said, “Now, I see! You want to put my donkey in the sky.”

    They are getting a prize competition off the ground this year that will run in stages through 2020. The race will involve teams competing to create a light, unmanned cargo aircraft that can fly around Mount Kenya, Africa’s second highest mountain, in under 24 hours while delivering and collecting payloads along the way that weigh 45 pounds. Ultimately, La Fondation Bundi, the nonprofit initiative of the Afrotech project at the EPFL and the Swiss National Centre of Competence for Research in Robotics (NCCR), aims to develop a commercial network that can carry cargo over long-distances quickly. “We’re very very agnostic about what the final donkey will look like,” says Ledgard.

    Other project are aiming for similar ideas, such as Matternet or a Gates Foundation-funded research project to deliver vaccines via drone, but Ledgard says these tend to focus on small payloads. “To me, this is not ambitious enough. It’s not really meeting the fundamental needs of the people. People want to move big stuff around,” he says. He ties it to the leapfrogging of brick-and-mortar retail. “As connectivity improves e-commerce is desperate to take off. … There’s not much of a retail shopping or mall culture in Africa.” The elder for instance, after he understood the flying donkey, was very quickly asking questions about whether he could ship his goat meat and fresh vegetables to a market, says Simon Johnson, the director of the project.

    This is much bigger than a purely a technological challenge, which is why there will also be a focus on legal, logistics, and design. The military already has UAV’s that can do this kind of task, but these are expensive. The “Flying Donkeys” are expected to be low-cost, durable, and easy to repair. But even more than the technology, creating a cargo drone network–complete with shipping hubs–would clearly require a major logistics and policy effort in conjunction. Ledgard says the initiative has yet to receive regulatory approvals in Kenya to run its contest with UAVs in the air, but it is currently in discussions with government officials.

    They also still need to raise a lot more money to fully fund the challenge. Ledgard says a multi-million dollar grand prize and sub-challenge prizes are needed to attract top talent to the competition. However, he cites EPFL’s long track record raising money for high-profit, pie-in-the-sky endeavors, such as its involvement in the Solar Impulse project, which is sending an unmanned solar plane flying around the world.

    “The Nokia 1100 is the Kalashnikov of telecommunication–a complex technology in a simple device,” says Johnson. “We believe the same thing should be done with air transportation.”

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