Post written by Darren Wilkins, Technology Columnist with the Liberian Observer
Earlier this year, while attending a symposium in Denver, Colorado, I had the opportunity to watch a clip on Amazon.com’s Prime Air. Prime Air is an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle that Amazon.com has been working on in its next generation Research & Development lab. The goal of this new delivery system is to get packages into customers’ hands in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles. To me at the time, that was a novel and innovative way of delivering goods to the customer.
Recently, the local Liberian papers carried headlines and news stories that kindled concerns about the chaos that could occur should an Ebola outbreak hit parts of the country where road (bad roads) conditions prevent access to those areas. Bad roads have traditionally and colossally impacted our economic development over the years. Farm-to-market roads, delays in the delivery of goods from Monrovia to rural areas and other travel strangulations are all a result of our pathetically deplorable roads. The panacea to this problem (bad roads) has been sought by many Liberian governments including the current government. Yet, the problem still exists. And now, shockingly, the Ebola Virus epidemic has further exposed this problem and many other problems in our country.
But what will we do when there is an outbreak in rural areas where cars, trucks and other vehicles do not have access because of bad roads? Yes, we could rely on a few UN helicopters and airplanes. But what if we had an “unmanned,” “aerial” and faster courier that can deliver goods in a matter of minutes, wouldn’t that be great? This is another solution that technology has provided for mankind. This “unmanned, aerial and fast” courier is called a drone.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, more commonly known as UAVs or drones, have and are often associated with the military; is replacements for jet fighters, reconnaissance planes, etc. And in recent times we have been hearing discussions among African militaries about using surveillance drones to help them patrol their borders and vast open spaces.
But today, new ways of using drones have put previous perceptions of them to rest. Drones can actually be used to enhance economic development especially on the continent of Africa, where there are many infrastructural challenges and always some form of crisis. For example, in situations that involve refugees drones or “disaster drones” could monitor refugee flows or human rights abuses. Some countries are even using them to protect animals categorized as “endangered species.” An example of this can be found in South Africa where rangers are using small “eco-drones” over game reserves to watch over endangered rhinos.
Drones could be used to deliver medicines and drive economic growth, with cargo drones moving goods quickly and cheaply. Drones could be used to fly vaccines to village health clinics in temperature-controlled flying bins. This is also something the Gates Foundation and others are working on.
A farmer engaged in agro-technology will not have to wait for weeks to have parts flown in when his/her tractor breaks down. With drones he/she can get the parts from Monrovia to the mechanic (in Butuo) in a few minutes thereby decreasing wait time.
Drones are not ubiquitous yet; in fact they are found in few parts of Africa. It may take some time for them to be found in many African countries but it seems we may not have to wait too long because engineers in Africa, have already started developing them. In Kenya, engineers have built drones intended to be used for several purposes: for surveillance purposes, for enhancing security, monitoring traffic, for journalism or photography, and many other purposes other for military or security purposes.
There are also a series of contests in Africa aimed at finding ways to improve drones and make them usable in civilian air space. The “Flying Donkey” Challenge which is expected to culminate in 2020, is one of the contests aimed at enhancing the use of drones in Africa.
Much work needs to be done to ensure that drones are prepared to be used in civilian air space. For example, there is still work that needs to be done to achieve the important “search and avoid” sensor capabilities that would keep these little flying vehicles from running into trees or each other. There are also regulatory issues that need to be addressed since very few African countries have comprehensive domestic legislation on privacy and data protection and information storage.
Changes in modern technology continue to bring a lot of changes and development in our societies and our cultures. While we will still need roads to transport (by land) goods to rural and inaccessible areas, Drones could help us solve many of the problems that our bad roads continue to present and help change the economic landscape.