The journey so far – cargo drones in Africa

…according to Denise Soesilo

One of the founders of Outsight International – a consulting and project management company for the humanitarian and development sector – Denise Soesilo is a world-renowned expert in unmanned aerial system (UAS) use in humanitarian and development settings, and in operationalising clean technologies.

She has worked with the World Bank and other development, humanitarian and UN agencies — advising on the application and implementation of space-based systems and UAS technologies in humanitarian operations. At the African Drone Forum held in Rwanda last year, Denise was directing the flying operations at lake Kivu Challenge.

She has also led the European Union Humanitarian Aid innovation grant for the implementation of drones in humanitarian action globally and has authored several leading publications on UAS in development and humanitarian action.

In the below article, Denise shares her journey with cargo drone technology in Africa, and her thoughts about where the technology is today, and what the future holds.

My journey with drones began in 2015, working with FSD on a dream project funded by the European Union Humanitarian Aid. The objective was to find out how we can use drones for anything anywhere in humanitarian settings. Given a blank slate and the task to find the most effective and promising applications, there was no better way to find out than to try.

Within the two years we implemented mapping projects in the Tadjik Pamir Mountains, Switzerland and Malawi, and deployed drones as part of an emergency simulation in France. During those years I also began first discussions with large medical humanitarian organisations to develop pilot implementation for cargo drone transport of diagnostic samples in hard-to-reach places. After having spoken to many tech providers, carefully weighing the pros and cons we decided that at that stage in 2016, the technology was still too early in its development to responsibly take into a real-world setting.

In 2017, I began a deep dive into cargo drone operations, working on the Lake Victoria Challenge in Tanzania, which was followed by the African Drone Forum Lake Kivu Challenge in Rwanda in early 2020. During those years, I worked closely with nine cargo drone companies to enable their flying operations. Seeing the industry evolve over the years, I am confident that we are ready to take this to the field in 2020 and 2021.

Where are we now?

Zipline is the only company so far that has been able to provide cargo drone services at scale – operating on the continent with some impressive successes to date. The initial business model is based on delivering transfusion blood. Today, five years after Zipline’s first delivery flight in Rwanda, the nation is on track to shift its entire transfusion blood supply to drone logistics reaching every part of the country in less than an hour upon receipt of the order. 

Medical deliveries and other development objectives remain at the core of the drive towards enabling a thriving drone industry in Africa, and the recent African Drone Forum has confirmed the appetite and commitment towards these objectives. Following the success of Zipline, the industry has been busy rising to the challenge.

The global drone logistics and transportation market is forecast to reach 11.2 billion USD globally by 2022, yet only a fraction of this market growth is forecast to take place in Africa. This is due to a combination of factors, but particularly that implementing high-tech solutions in remote settings has many risks and challenges. And there is not much experience or guidance out there in how to navigate these.

The following are some key lessons I’ve learnt over the past five years working in the sector, coordinating between industry, donors and governments.

What to look for in a cargo drone delivery company

Four key considerations I advise clients to consider seriously before working with any technology are the following:

  • A demonstrated commitment to safety. This cannot be over-emphasised and should be one of the first considerations. Technical documentation, operations manuals, flight and maintenance reports are crucial to build a track record. To be absolutely sure, it can be beneficial to solicit the advice of one or several subject matters experts. This procurement guide provides a helpful checklist of documentation to request when looking to hire a cargo drone company.
  • Technical specifications and business model appropriateness. Do the technology specifications and business model align with what is required for the use case being addressed? Is the company committed to building technology for cargo delivery? Can the application accommodate African business models? I still encounter companies that have a primary focus in data collection (mapping and monitoring) but say they can easily also deliver cargo. That is a red flag for me. There are significant (technical) differences implementing these two applications and cargo drone work deserves full attention to its specific challenges.
  • Range. Bigger is not always better, but when flying drones in the expanses of the African continent, range can make the difference. Studies recently published in the Lancet show that drone logistics in the Africa only compete with alternatives — namely motorcycles and other ground vehicles — in terms of cost effectiveness starting from a minimum range of 60-65 km both in routine and emergency scenarios. Almost all cargo drone companies can cover at least this minimum range. Many pure copter designs have a range limit of 20km and are not suitable for typical African use cases beyond urban deliveries. 
  • Willingness and ability to adapt. When implementing projects, delays and setbacks are to be expected. We are charting very new territory. Building relationships based on trust and openness will help companies better understand their customers while implementing organisations can get the most out of their investments through valuable lessons-learned. 
Avy has made a landing in Botswana

Who’s doing what?

Here are some of the most promising drone tech providers I have been keeping an eye on — besides Zipline of course: 

Avy

This Dutch company adheres fiercely to its “drones for good” slogan, keeping to a strict civilian focus. Avy’s Aera aircraft is being prepared to deliver medicines in the Netherlands within a year — circumventing traffic for essential and high priority deliveries.

The aircraft is small and light with a payload capacity of around 1 kilogram — just enough for these high-value products. However, like many of their competitors it is likely that a larger model is in the making. Avy is no stranger to the African continent, having provided surveillance support for anti-poaching and park management activities.

The company recently entered into a contract with the Botswana government, which will see the two working on a pilot project to deliver medicines to rural health centres in the country.

Phoenix Wings

Their Manta Ray aircraft is a heavy lifter among the small electric cargo drones. The aircraft was designed around the cargo and that thinking has paid off beautifully: the Manta Ray SR easily carries 7 kilograms in a 30 litre cargo compartment with a range extending more than 60 kilometers. Its signature turn into the wind upon take off is reminiscent of a spaceship in flight. Upon landing at the delivery location, the cargo compartment is released automatically.

RigiTech

This Swiss company has an impressive track record within their management. Two of its founders were part of Sensefly’s early start-up team before moving into the cargo drone business. The third co-founder is an MSF veteran having conducted medical delivery operations in Papua New Guinea as early as 2015. RigiTech’s business model centers around developing a complete hardware and software platform for cargo logistics.

Swoop Aero

This fast-rising Australian start-up has been flying vaccines for UNICEF and is about to start major operations in the DRC. From the outside, the aircraft looks less shiny than some of the competition, but the fundamentals are designed for safety, reliability and durability, which has proven to be a winning strategy. Swoop Aero is committed to expanding healthcare access through their logistics services and they are quickly establishing themselves as a market leader.

Vayu

Vayu has settled on a long-range design that is capable of several hundred kilometres (up to 800 kilometres to be precise) of flight. Vayu provide the only gasoline-powered aircraft in this list, and have been involved with the development sector projects for years, striving to make solutions that work. In some environments the use of fuel can be justified as it greatly extends range compared to battery powered systems.  

Volansi has cargo operations in Senegal

Volansi

Volansi is another Silicon Valley backed start-up with an impressive line-up, having logged experience in both North America and Africa. The company participated at the African Drone Forum Lake Kivu Challenge — and demonstrated solid tech and a highly professional team. A new aircraft has been in development, and will be launched shortly, so expect to hear a lot more from Volansi in the near future. 

Wingcopter

Known for their fine German engineering and for having produced the fastest civilian drone (fast = stable flight in the cargo drone world), Wingcopter has made recent headlines with a strategic partnership with UPS. Wingcopter are also veterans when it comes to operating in Africa and other rural settings, among others delivering vaccines with UNICEF in Vanuatu and delivering health supplies in Tanzania. Wingcopter have adapted quickly to their customers’ needs by developing the winch system that lowers their cargo without the need of landing the drone.

There is also AerialMetric, a Madagascan cargo drone maker and services company out of Madagascar that seems to be doing well in the Indian Ocean country, delivering medicines to remote communities in partnership with the United Nations. In April, the company successfully tested one of its drones to fly for 230 kilometres – one of the longest distances in medical delivery by a drone in the world.

Implementing cargo drones in community development

Integrating cargo drones for logistics is a complex matter that requires careful choreography. Safety (and security) management will take much attention and time. This includes: risk assessments; implementing risk mitigations; route planning; applying for activity permits and potential certification; air traffic management; and coordination. In addition, other aspects need to be managed: procurement; use case analysis; perceptions; waste and other environmental concerns; insurance; import and export; operations; skills development; regulations; perceptions; (data) protection; cost-benefit analyses; and media — among others.

Since in many environments the cost-benefit is not yet fully established, future implementations should also be designed around collecting quality data. Cost-benefit analyses will require data on major cost drivers of drone operations such as failure rates under various operational conditions, down-time due to weather conditions and fixed costs for maintenance and running the operation.

To pull so many aspects together, whilst also dealing with multiple stakeholders with different interests, requires significant expertise, diplomacy and technical knowledge. Although, complex, I have seen that it is possible to bring all the pieces together efficiently and effectively. Any new implementations must build on the best practices and lessons learned established so far.

This will help elevate cargo drones to their full potential in Africa.

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