Drones could help to overcome poor transport infrastructure, as only one-third of Africans live within 2 kilometers of an all-weather road. File Photo: IOL

CAPE TOWN – Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) could help to overcome poor transport infrastructure, as only one-third of Africans live within 2 kilometers of an all-weather road. Making sure that the remaining two-thirds have access to decent roads will cost more than $50 billion (R736.4bn) and take several years, which is why Africa has been a pioneer in using drones for peaceful civilian use. 

Timothy Reuter, Head of Aerospace and Drones at the World Economic Forum was part of a panel discussion on unleashing the drone economy at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town. 

“Increasing drone use in Africa does not only bring great benefits to business, agriculture and the health sector but quite literally save lives by taking deliveries off the roads and into the sky. To unleash this potential, new policies need to be put in place that safely open the skies to drones as most African countries do not yet permit the most beneficial applications,” he said.

Conor French, the General Counsel for Zipline International Incorporated said Zipline had already made 19,472 deliveries without a single accident after starting to make deliveries of blood products in Rwanda in 2016. A third of these involved emergency deliveries, where time was critical and drone flights were the only feasible way of getting the blood to the patient. Most of these patients were mothers after childbirth. Zipline have since expanded their service to Ghana. .

Valerie Guarnieri, the assistant executive director at the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said drones has been a vital part of the disaster relief response in Mozambique after Cyclone Idai, as the UAVs allowed the WFP to assess which roads were still passable and which were not, so that they could plan their routes for the trucks taking food to starving survivors. 

“Drones can help with three vital functions after a disaster such as a tropical storm or earthquake. The first is imagery as that will allow us to assess the extent of damage to infrastructure. The second is connectivity as drones can act as relay stations when cellphone masts have been disabled. The third is delivery as we can get critical supplies to areas until roads have been restored,” she said. 

Catherine Smith, the Managing Director of SAP Africa said drones could be used to protect wildlife as poachers were killing 3 rhinos per day and 2 to 4 elephants per hour.

SAP had partnered with 10 game farms to validate the technology and it had worked as a deterrent, as the poachers first did a reconnaissance to test the response to an incursion. If there was an immediate response, then the poachers left to find easier places to hunt wildlife.

“The problem we have however encountered is the lack of qualified drone pilots,” she said.

Cheng Hui, the Head of the Research and Development Centre for JD.COM, one of China’s largest ecommerce retailers said they had made more than 35 000 deliveries to remote Chinese villages.

“What we did to ensure a safe delivery was to appoint drone ambassadors in each village, so they are there ready to accept the delivery and then distribute to the customers,” he said.      

The problem however in Africa is that three-quarters of African governments have no regulations regarding drones. That is why the World Bank, World Economic Forum and the Government of Rwanda with support from UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) have come together to announce the African Drone Forum: Symposium, Expo and Flying Competitions, an international drone and unmanned traffic management event, which will be hosted in Rwanda in February 2020. 

This event will include a regulatory summit that brings together leading figures in drone technology from the private sector and airspace regulators to highlight and discuss what is possible for the future of drones in Africa.

BUSINESS REPORT