• Aerial approach

    Drones are finding application in everything, from landmine detection and crop spraying to crime fighting and vaccine delivery

    Aerial approach

    When US retailer Walmart recently confirmed it was rolling out drone-based deliveries for its online customers, Africans greeted the news not with wide-eyed excitement but with a collective shrug. We’ve been seeing – and living – the benefits of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for a while now. And on our continent, where distances are vast and settlements are remote, airborne deliveries make a lot more sense than vans on the road.

    Drones are well and truly in the mainstream these days. In a recent project with Nobel Prize-winning NGO Humanity and Inclusion (formerly Handicap International), Côte d’Ivoire Flying Labs used a drone equipped with infrared thermal sensors to detect and map landmines in the deserts of Chad.

    Meanwhile, South African private-security group Fidelity has launched a fleet to track criminals in suburban areas. ‘We believe drones and the deployment of a mobile drone team will not only act as a highly effective visible deterrent to criminals, but also assist to immediately track down and locate criminal elements once an outer perimeter on an estate has been breached, or in any scenario where suspects are at large on a security estate,’ says Wahl Bartmann, Fidelity Services Group CEO.

    His statement highlights four key benefits of UAVs – they’re mobile, versatile, visible and quick. To that he could have added a fifth: they now fly further than ever.

    Range is crucial in a continent such as
    Africa, where the most remote areas are often also among the most inaccessible. In May 2021 Madagascar Flying Labs, supported by AerialMetric and working with the WHO’s African regional office, completed a set of long-range drone flights as part of a study into the impact of long flight times on the aerial cold chain.

    The flights – measuring 150 km, 175 km, 200 km and 225 km – were carried out across northern Madagascar. Each had a 2 kg cargo, which, as AerialMetric explains, is the estimated weight equivalent of 300 biological samples. The cold chain was maintained throughout all four long-range flights.

    ‘Maintaining the cold chain means keeping patient samples and medicines within a specific temperature range, for example between 0°C and 8°C,’ the company states. ‘This is absolutely essential because some samples and medicines – such as vaccines – are ruined if they exceed certain temperatures over a given period of time.’ It adds that the 225 km flight ‘may be the longest autonomous flight of an e-VTOL [electric vertical takeoff and landing] cargo drone in Africa to date’. In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, that could prove to be a lifesaver.

    Yet the notion of using drones to deliver medical supplies is nothing new – at least not in Africa, where a few countries were early adopters of UAV logistics. ‘In October 2016, Zipline began delivering whole and componentised blood (red and white blood cells, plasma, platelets and cryoprecipitates) to remote hospitals in Rwanda,’ according to a March 2021 WEF Insight report. ‘By 2019, this programme had expanded to nationwide service, with Zipline delivering 75% of the country’s blood supply outside of the Rwandan capital of Kigali to 2 500 hospitals and health facilities and 25 million people from six distribution centres that cover 100% of Rwanda and 50% of Ghana.’

    In some ways Rwanda is Africa in a microcosm. Consider its hilly landscape, its harsh weather conditions, its challenging geography and its remote outposts. No wonder, then, that sub-Saharan Africa as a region has been so quick to create the most sophisticated drone networks.

    Malawi, for example, established the world’s first humanitarian drone corridor in 2017 to curb the spread of communicable diseases. In 2019, the DRC established Central Africa’s first drone port to distribute vaccines to inaccessible communities.

    In May 2021 Botswana joined the list, launching its own Drones for Health pilot project to deliver maternal health supplies – including obstetric-care drugs, blood, blood products and laboratory specimens – to hard-to-reach communities and health facilities.

    So when COVID-19 hit the continent, the vaccine-distribution infrastructure was – in some cases – already in place. As Sabrina Ravail, commercial director at Swoop Aero, told Logistics Update Africa, ‘African nations have recognised the importance and value of drones in the delivery and distribution of COVID-19 health supplies and […] vaccines. The easily scalable solution – as prefaced on the lack of heavy on-ground infrastructure required to establish a network – has facilitated a fast, reliable, agile and safe method of health-commodity transportation. For example, in Malawi, the deployment of the Swoop Aero air logistics service has reduced critical journey times from 90 minutes down to a 12-minute journey’.

    Botswana’s Drones for Health project introduced similar efficiencies. Using battery-powered drones, with 100 km delivery distances and 2 kg cargo capacity, it targeted four remote villages in its pilot project. The journey from the main hub of Palapye to Lecheng is 32 km by road and 11 km via drone; to Mokgware it’s 55 km by road and 32 km by drone; to Mogapi, it’s 108 km by road and 75 km via drone; and to Moremi, it’s 75 km by road and 36 km via drone.

    Yet while healthcare dominates the news headlines, the use cases for drones in Africa are spread across a range of industries. Agriculture is an obvious example, with drone technology dramatically reducing the time it takes farmers to apply protection to their crops.

    In Togo, for instance, Lomé-based school e-AgriSky aims to train 8 000 local farmers as certified drone pilots. The benefits are clear: it takes about three hours to spray 1 ha of a rice field using traditional methods; with a drone, it takes just 15 minutes – and it limits farm workers’ exposure to harmful chemicals.

    Elsewhere, Chinese drone manufacturer XAG is rolling out a fleet of drones specifically designed and equipped to conduct ultra-low-volume precision spraying of chemical or biological pesticides to combat East Africa’s ongoing locust plague. Again, the focus areas are those that are inaccessible to airplanes and ground vehicles. And XAG knows the technology works – China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region has approximately 5 000 agricultural drones serving its more than 1.3 million ha of cotton fields.

    Drones have the potential to accelerate the continent’s digital economy through the delivery of goods purchased online

    And as South African start-up Notam is demonstrating, drones can also accelerate change in smaller (or more contained) projects such as in mining and infrastructure. Notam uses AI technology and drone-powered data gathering to enable quicker and more precise progress verification. ‘With a single drone fly-over we can enable all stakeholders to communicate with a centralised Cloud software,’ CEO Zukile Mkhalali told Disrupt Africa. ‘This bridges the information gap between a mining or construction site and the office by putting data at everyone’s fingertips.’

    It also means that drones could soon perform a range of difficult and dangerous tasks across the project site. While some drones take care of the perilous jobs previously done by rope access teams, and others quickly cover large surveying areas, yet another part of the fleet can hover above it all, linking the humans in an operations centre to the vast volumes of data being gathered on the ground. (Or, in this case, in the air.) There is, of course, far more to UAV technology than simply covering large areas in shorter time frames or getting small packages to hard-to-reach places. The ‘flying donkey’ argument – which holds that parts of Africa could overcome their infrastructure challenges by leapfrogging from dirt roads to aerial drones – is well on its way to being won.

    Speaking at 2020’s African Drone forum, World Bank regional director Franz Drees-Gross outlined how drones could accelerate Africa’s digital economy. ‘Many communities are digitally online, if geographically remote,’ he said, pointing to mobile-phone adoption rates of 90% or more in some parts of the continent. He added that if farms, markets and medical facilities in remote areas were able to order supplies online by mobile phone and have them delivered by drone (rather than over ground), production would see an exponential boost. If the customers and suppliers could also make and receive mobile payments, that boost would be amplified even further.

    ‘We need governments that are forward-thinking and bold,’ said Drees-Gross. ‘Africa is on the rise.’ That rise, he might have added, is being lifted by a growing fleet of drones.

    By Mark van Dijk
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images