Global

  • Revolution in the air: Airborne cargo drones in Rwanda

    Imogen Mathers

    30/10/15
  • The Rwandan drone ports will operate two lines. The smaller Redline will carry smaller health packages blood, medicine, and other supplies of up to ten kilograms to rural health clinics and emergency hotspots up to 100 kilometres away. The Blueline will carry larger commercial loads of up to 100 kilograms.

    Redline and Foster + Partners

    Many rural health clinics in Sub-Saharan Africa lack basic medical stocks, including blood for transfusions. This means patients often rely on unsafe blood donors. In a continent with the highest HIV prevalence in the world, at nine per cent compared with a global average of 1.2 per cent, this can be deadly.

    Redline and Foster + Partners

    Only a third of Africans live within two kilometres of an all-season road, and many countries dont have the money for bridges, tunnels and railways they need. Rwanda only has just over 1,000 paved roads, in addition to nearly 4,000 dirt roads. Drones are a cheap, fast alternative.

    Redline and Foster + Partners

    The plan is for three drone ports initially: one in Cyangugu and another in Kibuye both in western province, and one in Byumba in the northern province. These ports will serve 5.2 million people almost a half of the population of Rwanda, a country known for its majestic but un-navigable mountains.

    Redline and Foster + Partners

    The Redline and Blueline drones. If expanded to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, these drone networks could make cargo routes cheaper and safer. Although Africa has two per cent of the worlds vehicles it accounts for 16 per of global road deaths: almost 250,000 deaths are predicted for 2015. Ninety per cent of goods are moved by road.

    Redline and Foster + Partners

    Imagine early railway stations and petrol stations, Ledgard says. Now think of a drone point. The ports wont be the exclusive domain of technicians and engineers; nor will they resemble the sterile warehouses of Amazons last mile solutions for the rich, he says.

    Redline and Foster + Partners

    As well as being vital nodes in health supply networks, drone ports will house labs for fabrication of drone parts and other industrial components, and for drone servicing. And they will provide local people with post offices, courier services, and markets the beating heart of any African town.

    Redline and Foster + Partners

    Local people will be able to run market stalls, and buy and sell goods, generating local employment and enterprise. The Blueline courier service will transport goods up and down the country, boosting trade.

    Redline and Foster + Partners

    The drone ports will be cheap to build, made from local materials and use clean energy. The project draws on Fosters experience in airport and lunar construction. Like Fosters concept for lunar buildings, the drone port uses a kit-of-parts.

    Redline and Foster + Partners

    The drone ports aesthetics will be designed to be in harmony with local terrain. The vaulted structure will be made from bricks pressed from local raw materials. After some basic construction training, local people will be able to assemble the structures themselves, and the design allows multiple vaults to be linked depending on need.

    Redline and Foster + Partners

    Like many countries in Africas Great Lakes, Rwanda is a land of mountains and water. It is home to some of the highest mountains in Africa. Drones could slash the time taken to traverse such terrain.

    Redline and Foster + Partners

    Africa is a continent of dramatic terrain high mountains, massive river networks and deserts. There is no continuous road network linking East and West Africa, and the continent is ill-served by trains: mountainous terrain makes building railways unfeasibly expensive. This aerial shot of a mountain range in Ethiopia is one such case.

    NASA
Until not long ago the ‘drone’ of the public imagination was an exclusively military machine. We knew them by the trail of destruction they left behind, captured in grainy newsreel footage of remote-controlled explosions in Afghan villages, or by stories of wedding parties in Yemen cut down by bombs.
 
Today drones have more diverse uses. They are still widely used by the military to survey and kill. But they have positive uses too, tracking forest loss, monitoring devastation caused by natural disasters and identifying refugees in trouble.
 
But until now this has remained small-scale and specialist — the domain of experts. A new project plans to expand the use of drones into everyday civilian life. The Swiss-based Afrotech project has teamed up with the architecture firm Foster + Partners to launch the world’s first courier drones and drone ports at three sites across Rwanda in 2020.
 
Afrotech has spent the past few years researching drones for use at massive scale in Africa, a continent ill-connected by roads. For the past couple of years, Afrotech director Jonathan Ledgard has been expounding the power of drones to reshape transport, health and business, and Africa’s potential as a pioneer of cargo drone technology.  
 
Now this vision looks closer to becoming reality – at least in Rwanda. As these images show, Ledgard and Foster’s team envisions drone ports that will transform courier services and healthcare, delivering blood and supplies across the country. The ports will also sit at the heart of communities, becoming economically sustainable hubs of activity where lab technicians and health workers mingle with market traders and ordinary people going about their daily lives. The hope is that cargo drones bring a transport revolution for people in Rwanda and the region – those who need social transformation the most.