Opinion: Cargo drones are a gadget that can work for those who need it
LAUSANNE, Switzerland – In recent years, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have filled the imagination and the nightmares of people around the world.
In April, the United States Navy announced an experimental program called LOCUST, which stands for Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology. The weapon can rapidly launch up to 30 drones out of a tube, which then swarm together to gather information or strike at an enemy. Officials promise it will overwhelm an adversary and thus “provide Sailors and Marines a decisive tactical advantage.” The American military already uses drones that can kill at a distance, and this new program will likely make some people even more nervous about these flying machines.
Drones Are Here To Stay
But the use of drones in the lower sky is here to stay. More than three million humans are in the air daily in airplanes, and every large city on our planet is connected to another by air transport. DJI, a Chinese UAV manufacturer, says it is growing fast and is already worth $10 billion. Cargo drones that fly goods and packages will grow into an even larger business in the coming years. Because they are lightweight, they will fly more cheaply but be just as fast and safe as cargo planes.
In rich countries, early interest in cargo drones has focused on the so-called last mile. This means delivering a package to its final destination – for instance, a tub of sorbet onto a suburban lawn. But the bigger opportunities are in flying in poorer countries. Some 800 million people around the world have limited access to emergency services, and that will not change in the foreseeable future, because there will not be enough money to build roads to connect them. By flying medium-size loads middling distances to many of these isolated communities, cargo drones can save lives and create jobs.
Cargo drones are an example of what Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank, calls the “science of delivery.” We know what we need to deliver: the solutions to many of our most pressing problems already exist. The question is how.
A Form Of "Frugal Innovation"
Answering that question is why humanitarians, roboticists, architects, logisticians and others have joined together in a new initiative called Red Line. The Swiss-based group wants to accelerate development of emergency cargo drones and build the world’s first droneports – in Africa.
It sounds techno-utopian – or at least like a huge waste of resources. After all, the experience of companies and nonprofits shows we should be skeptical about advanced technology’s power to bring about meaningful change for the poor. It is boring stuff like low-cost teacher training, community health care and apprentice programs that produces real results.
That is why many development experts favor “frugal innovation” — solutions that cost less but work better — over technology. The Bangladesh-based BRAC, the world’s largest nonprofit, has 1.3 million children enrolled in one-room schools, and hardly a laptop in sight.
So why be optimistic about cargo drones? One reason to favor cargo drones is precisely that they fly in remote regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America where poverty and disease are pervasive, distances are great and roads will never be built.
Getting Vital Goods And Services Where They're Needed
Cargo drones are particularly well suited to the so-called local-agent delivery model. Companies and organizations have shown that in hard-to-reach places in Africa and South Asia, women have been trained to start tiny micro businesses. Often, they are the people best positioned to deliver essential goods and services to their villages, even if they have limited literacy and education. BRAC’s community health workers, for example, make their money from selling basic medicines like de-worming medication, anti-malarial drugs and birth control.
Though cargo drones will never replace ground transport, they can ensure that vital goods and services get to where they are needed. Mobile phones took off in Africa because the technology was so much cheaper than investing in landline phone systems, and hanging miles and miles of wires. The same can be said today about Africa’s roads. Like the mobile phone, the cargo drone can prove to be the rarest of creatures: a gadget that works for those who need it most.