Coming soon to a shop near you – parcel drones

Drones have a bad reputation. They kill, they spy. They loom overhead and remind us of our vulnerability.

But in the next decade new forms of drones will gain a better reputation. The most profitable of these will be cargo drones.

Economic growth in the near future will depend on connectivity – of people, of data, and especially of goods. And with 9 billion people on the planet, limited public infrastructure, and rising energy costs, it is inevitable that we will increasingly take to the sky to keep those goods moving – and most of the expected massive growth in air cargo will come from the increasing use of drones.

The only question is where the technology will be developed and on what terms. EPFL’s future Africa initiative Afrotech is leading a group of roboticists, engineers, logisticians and economists to lead a cargo drone solution for Africa and beyond.

Research in unmanned cargo has so far been dominated by jumbo-sized planes, military solutions, and small helicopter drones for express deliveries - such as the UAE’s recent promise to deliver identity cards by drone.

But to make sense in Africa and in the poorer parts of the Middle East, a cargo drone will have to be cheaper, more efficient and safer than human-piloted flight. That means being rugged, resistant to sand and dirt, and easy to repair.

It will also have to be right size. Big and small have their advantages, but the lucrative future of cargo drones will be middle-sized – vehicles capable of carrying 20-30 kilograms more than 50 kilometres in less than an hour.

It will take time to get the price down and the reliability up, but a mass-produced cargo drone could reach a purchase price of US$3,000 (Dh11,000), with operating costs of 70cents per km, before 2022.

To accelerate the industry and steer its evolution, EPFL has come together with other partners to set up an independent technology prize called the Flying Donkey Challenge.

The first of what will be an annual series of escalating technical challenges is due to take place in Africa in November. It has attracted 32 leading robotics and engineering teams from around the world, the best of which will be invited to test their technology.

The challenge will also have legal, logistics and design tracks. Security considerations, liability law, and simply how the cargo drones – donkeys – move overhead will be determining factors in the success of the technology.

Early uses of cargo drones will be in the humanitarian sector to supply areas cut off by floods or conflict, as well as for farms, safari camps, mines and oil installations. They will save time by carrying cargo around congested cities. But the much bigger success for cargo drones will be if they help enable e-commerce in Africa.

Most young Africans will have access to smartphones before 2019. With limited income and lots of time they will surf for better deals on every manufactured item. And cargo drones will do some of the delivering. They will also help expand the economy by connecting communities – especially during the rainy season.

How will cargo drones look? They will fly at 150-200 metres along narrow corridors. They will fly by line of sight, with visualisation technology that allows them to see landmarks as they pass over them.

Imagine a mountain cable car line virtually strung across the sky, with the frequency of cargo drones determined by the intensity of economy. Crucially, a government would have oversight of the loading and unloading of cargo and would be able to drop the drones down if necessary.

Postal services may renew themselves by taking over some of the handling duties or shipping and courier companies may satisfy security concerns to expand into the new business.

Within a decade it is likely that remote communities in the UAE will receive some of their supplies by cargo drones that use sense and avoid, navigation, visualisation and other industry standards developed by EPFL and the Flying Donkey Challenge.

Jonathan Ledgard is director of EPFL’s Afrotech initiative and Africa correspondent at large for The Economist

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