Unmanned “Unplugged”

Simon Johnson, Flying Donkey Project

Simon Johnson is a director of the La Fondation Bundi, which sponsors the Flying Donkey Challenge. The challenge is working to pioneer a new transportation system using unmanned aircraft systems to deliver cargo over long distances, starting in Africa. Johnson is also a board member of the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research in Robotics (NCCR). Increasing Human Potential recently had the chance to sit down with him to discuss his work.

The term “flying donkey” is quite an attention grabber. Can you explain what a flying donkey is for those who don’t know?

Flying donkeys are large cargo robots (maximum takeoff weight of 60 kilos) with rugged air frames capable of lifting heavy suitcase loads over long distances. The first commercial flying donkeys, due in Africa by 2020, will carry at least 20 kilos over 50 kilometers in less than one hour. Since Africa is growing too fast to build out its road network, transportation will have to be supplemented from the sky. It is hoped that tens of thousands of low-cost flying donkeys will be operating on established networks in Africa and globally within a generation, lifting Africa by creating jobs and enabling e-commerce and community-to-community exchanges in a shared economy.

Credit: Jonathan Ledgard

Can you tell us about the Flying Donkey Challenge in 2014?  We understand there are technical, legal, logistics, and architectural and design challenges.

For the 2014 edition of the Flying Donkey Challenge, we are organizing four enabling technology sub-challenges — No. 1 precision takeoff and landing, No. 2 GPS-denied navigation, No. 3 sense and avoid, and No. 4 cargo delivery) — an air show, and a conference to present, discuss and reward the best ideas related to the legal, logistical and business aspects of implementing simple, reliable, affordable and scalable flying donkey infrastructure and services in Africa as soon as possible.

What is the ultimate goal of the Flying Donkey Challenge? What practical benefits do you see it generating, and when do you think we will see them implemented?

Before 2020, with world media attention, the challenge will culminate in a race of flying donkeys around Mount Kenya in under 24 hours, delivering and collecting 20-kilo payloads along the way.

You’ve said, “If we are going to use flying robots to transportation goods on a massive scale, it makes more sense to do it in Africa first.” Why Africa?

Africa has a population that will double by 2050, some of the fastest growing economies, forecasted infrastructure deficit, a flexible regulatory environment, is ready to leapfrog technology and has plenty of air bandwidth. Solutions proven in Africa will be replicated in other areas.

Credit: Simon Johnson

You are a serial entrepreneur who’s made your way from Hewlett-Packard to the board of the NCCR Robotics. What drew you to work with UAS technology?

I am amazed how mobile phones have transformed the world. The industry has provided complex technology that is both affordable and easy to use to millions with huge economic and social benefits. The same can be done with UAS technology that can complement the transportation infrastructure of fast growing countries, with available airspace.

The tagline for NCCR Robotics is “Intelligent robots for improving the quality of life.” This is an ambitious and interesting goal. What has been the most interesting project you’ve worked on thus far?

Soft, wearable robotics — special trousers that will detect if a person is losing balance and correct their stance by going partially rigid (e.g., strengthening a hip or knee joint). With old age, many health complications are the consequence of a simple fall.

As UAS technology continues to develop, how do you foresee it being used by researchers, yourself included, in the future? 

Autonomous systems are going to transform our planet, but acceptance will be a challenge. Tomorrow we will be driven to work, and goods will be delivered to our doorsteps by robots. The question is not if, but when.