Drone dreams in Africa

Our robot sky: Redline droneport concept from Eternaut on Vimeo.

There has never been a greater catalyst to innovation and change than necessity. No matter what the naysayers said, today there is no denying the fact that E-commerce has changed the face of rural India. One look at my Amazon delivery boy here in Madurai is a testament to the fact that he carries as heavy a load as his counterpart in Mumbai. With accessibility to a myriad of products comes opportunity grown on the bedrock that is the delivery network. Yet across the world there are still so many remote places that are not easily accessible to date. And we aren’t talking about stuff you order from Amazon. These places do not even have access to critical medical supplies. A solution to this could be winging its way to us from Africa. Pioneered by Redline, a company in Africa who has ambitious plans to establish a drone network that will rival anything Amazon can dream of in the highly regulated Americas.

What makes this so different from Amazon’s plans for 30 minute doorstep delivery with drones you wonder? Quad copters are not the most robust of drones and one can guess that the African continent demands a tougher type of drone that can weather the storm and have low maintenance and operation costs. These drones will operate in conditions and terrain that your typical Amazon drone would find it very hard to stay aloft in.

The idea of Red Line has been dreamt up Swiss based Jonathan Ledgard (novelist and ex African correspondent for the Economist) and Lord Norman Foster (architect) and funded by various Swiss universities and businesses. The idea is to create drone ports similar to petrol stations where conventional aircrafts can’t reach to act as hubs for these drones. These ports are to be built in areas which may not even be connected by roads. It seems we have come full circle from having aviaries for carrier pigeons. The project is set to kick off in Rwanda with plans for the first drone port to be built.

The idea is to operate two different types of drone networks. The Red Line drone network comprises of smaller drones with a range of 50Km and a 10Kg payload that will primarily be tasked with carrying lifesaving supplies such as blood and medicines. The Blue Line network has twice the range and can carry a payload ten times more than the Red Line and will be tasked for cargo, e-commerce and other essentials. This is a project that will require the development of not only the drones themselves but the entire infrastructure from scratch. It will require a wide range of expertise including robotics research, precision based navigation, safety systems and landing systems to name just a few.

Apart from the physical infrastructure the team behind Redline will have to help local governments plan and build the necessary legislation that can safeguard such a venture from misuse. Care will need to be taken to ensure that this new flight of drones don’t mess around with the ecology. We’ve seen in Canada how favourable legislation and processes can make all the difference. The country is edging forward in the drone adoption race being faster in granting drone licenses than the American based FAA that only recently mandated that having a civil pilot’s license for operating unmanned drones for commercial purposes was no longer a necessity.

If one were to look for a working model or benchmark for Redline, perhaps one should look at Mmist Mobility. This Canadian drone operator uses the Snow Goose Cargo UAV originally developed by the military to carry goods to artic regions which are hard to reach by conventional means. What makes Mmist drones different is their need for a decent road to be able to launch. These drones are also neither all wing designs like the Redline or a quadcopter. They are either dropped aerially or launched from the back of a flatbed truck and have paragliding wind sails and a motor to carry their payloads.

Perhaps the greatest hurdle before we see such networks sprouting up in India and across the developing world will be fighting the fear that is associated with unarmed drones flying overhead. Pick a layman off the street and ask him to paint a visual of a drone, more often than not he would think of the silhouette of the American Predator drone made infamous by Hollywood and the news. It is therefore critical to ensure payloads are screened and drones are tamper proof and hijack proof. Drone accidents are inevitable and will need to be addressed.

Nevertheless what Red Line is attempting to do is both exciting and hopefully a step to the better. Being able to reach remote areas may also enable populations to move to these remoter areas and ease the burden on cities in the decades to come. Till then our eyes are on the skies.


Much ado about drones


There was a time when drones were the thing of movies. Think Terminator toEagle Eye. It was cool to feature a predator drone in your movie, as cool as it was to feature an F117 Stealth Fighter or the B2 Stealth Bomber much earlier. It was just the done thing, a fad of film. In fact just like the Stealth fighter, the world was blissfully unaware of drones till one was shot down. However, in just a few years, drones have gone from being something that you would see at the movies or on the news to something you are more likely to see in your backyard.

Drones in your backyard

Perhaps one of the most popular commercially recognisable drones are the Parrot drones. Their success has not only seen multiple iterations of the drone but also seen them grow in various shapes and sizes as seen in the video above. These are drones that are in essence for fun. At first an expensive boy’s toy, smaller drones are fast becoming popular and are seeing some interesting real world applications.

Movie magic takes flight

Another important contribution to the rise of the drones has been the entire phenomenon that is the Go-Pro Camera and first person sports footage. Combine a Go-Pro with tailor made drones and you have a video recording platform that gives you the kind of panoramic footage that was only previously available to moviemakers. The combination of drones, cameras and some other clever technologies now mean that we even have drones with cameras that can follow users around shooting them. True its early days and obstacle recognition is a problem for most of these drones. Yet you have to admit those outdoor home videos just got so much cooler. Also in the day and age of the selfie, a drone lets you take pictures from a wider and higher perspectives. As a result you see some really stunning perspectives as seen here.

What else could you do with a drone?

As drones get cheaper and more accessible, we discover new applications for these motorised marvels. Take advertisers who use drones to deliver bottles of beverages to thirsty workers in high rises for example. Amazon planning to deliver packages using drones. Or how a drone was used to film footage of the aftermath of the Tibet earthquake. For the more light-hearted pursuit, there is now the sport called drone racing. Just like remote control car racing, but with drones.

How drones can change the world

We’ve come to associate with drones as something the size of either a small aircraft or a remote control plane or helicopter. The future is also small. Image a swarm of bee like drones. Each working together in unison, swarming for specific activities like search and rescue. And they all needn’t fly either. Drones the size of ants could help scour through the post-earthquake or natural calamity wreckage to find signs of life where sniffer dogs can’t reach.

The seas are just the next stop. Drones could get rid of all the garbage that we dumped in there. Unless we want the world looking like something that is straight out of Wall-E in a few years.  Fact is that the future isn’t that far off. There are already advances in robotics at this level. It’s just a matter of time till these are also available off the shelf. Drones can go to inaccessible areas that are otherwise hard to reach. Making it perfect for investigating forest fires and so on.

For the paranoid, yes such microscopic drones could also be put to good use in hostage scenarios or to spy on people. In fact the idea even has its place in the popular PC Game Splinter Cell Conviction. Armed forces already use spotter drones to give snipers unparalleled views of kill zones. I can just imagine Alfred Hitchcocks’s Rear Window being filmed in the day and age of the drone. That’s a remake just waiting to happen. Trust me.

A sky full of drones could also be quite the nuisance and could you imagine what would happen if one of these hobby drones hit a small aeroplane? Not much probably since most would be lighter than a pigeon. A nuisance though, which is why perhaps the FAA is trying to regulate the use of these drones, even by journalists. For example a drone hobbyist who was trying to use a drone to take pictures of the University of Virginia was fined $10,000 by the FAA. While many say this is a violation of the freedom of speech, it does make you think twice before you take to the skies.

What I’d love to do or see:

Whatever your take on drones, the fact is that they are now mainstream and here to stay. As an advertiser the question is how do we make use of them best. How about a pico projector mounted on a drone that follows shoppers around a store projecting QR codes whenever a person passes a certain aisle. A neat way to combine GPS and customised deals and offers real time. Just one of many nifty applications that are possible.