World first 'drone-port' planned in Rwanda

September 30, 2015 by Stephanie Aglietti
A view of the centre of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, seen in 2014
A view of the centre of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, seen in 2014

It sounds like science fiction: unmanned drones carrying emergency medicine zooming above the rolling hills of Rwanda.

But proposals—including one by eminent British architect Norman Foster—plan exactly that, to set up "cargo drone routes capable of delivering urgent and precious supplies to remote areas on a massive scale", with the East Africa nation of Rwanda chosen as a test case.

"Specialist drones can carry blood and life-saving supplies over 100 kilometres (60 miles) at minimal cost, providing an affordable alternative that can complement road-based deliveries," the proposal reads.

Rwanda, left in ruins after genocide in 1994, has rapidly rebuilt with the government pushing initiatives to boost technology and the powerful ruler President Paul Kagame dreaming of turning the capital Kigali into a regional hub for investors and multinational companies.

Government efforts have rapidly pushed mobile phone and internet coverage across the landlocked nation, but the rolling landscape of a nation dubbed the "land of a thousand hills" means physical access to some areas is more of a challenge.

The proposal—by architecture firm Foster + Partners, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and its linked Afrotech company—hopes to see drones with a three-metre (10-foot) wingspan able to carry deliveries weighing 10 kilogrammes (22 pounds).

Drones with a six-metre (19.5 foot) wingspan, capable of carrying payloads of 100 kilogrammes (220 pounds) are planned to follow by 2025.

'Bold, radical solutions'

"Africa is a continent where the gap between the population and infrastructural growth is increasing exponentially," Foster said at the project launch earlier this month.

"The dearth of terrestrial infrastructure has a direct impact on the ability to deliver life-giving supplies, indeed where something as basic as blood is not always available for timely treatment. We require immediate bold, radical solutions to address this issue," Foster said.

Rwanda, left in ruins after genocide in 1994, has rapidly rebuilt with the government pushing initiatives to boost technology
Rwanda, left in ruins after genocide in 1994, has rapidly rebuilt with the government pushing initiatives to boost technology

The pilot project is slated to begin next year, with three "drone-port" buildings due for completion by 2020, enabling the drones to cover almost half of Rwanda's countryside.

While Rwanda's government has yet to comment on the proposals, people have welcomed the plan.

"The introduction of drones can add to the many solutions we have available to tackle infrastructure challenges in Rwanda," Junior Sabena Mutabazi wrote in a the pro-government New Times newspaper.

Rwanda, small, tightly controlled and where there is only modern infrastructure in key hubs, offers the chance to test case cargo drones before possible expansion into wilder, less developed countries on the continent.

"The Droneport project is about doing 'more with less', capitalising on the recent advancements in drone technology—something that is usually associated with war and hostilities—to make an immediate life-saving impact in Africa," Foster said.

Those developing the project point out that in many parts of Africa, too remote to establish telephone landlines, mobile technology leapfrogged that step, with mobiles now common across the continent even in the remotest of places.

'Flying robots to move goods inevitable'

Drones, it is argued, could do the same where a lack of roads has made access tough.

Rwanda's powerful ruler President Paul Kagame dreams of turning the capital Kigali into a regional hub for investors and multina
Rwanda's powerful ruler President Paul Kagame dreams of turning the capital Kigali into a regional hub for investors and multinational companies

"Cargo drone routes have utility wherever there is a lack of roads," the project proposal said.

"Just as mobile phones dispensed with landlines, cargo drones can transcend geographical barriers such as mountains, lakes, and unnavigable rivers without the need for large-scale physical infrastructure."

Jonathan Ledgard, from Swiss-based Afrotech —an initiative aiming to "help pioneer advanced technologies in Africa at massive scale"—knows the challenges, having worked as a journalist in trouble spots across the continent for the past decade.

Ledgard is convinced cargo will be the future, but is also determined the technology will benefit those who need it most.

British architect Norman Foster poses for a photo in San Sebastian, Spain, in 2010

"It is inevitable on a crowded planet, with limited resources, that we will make more intensive use of our sky using flying robots to move goods faster, cheaper, and more accurately than ever before," Ledgard said.

"But it is not inevitable that these craft or their landing sites will be engineered to be tough and cheap enough to serve poorer communities who can make most use of them," he said.

"Droneport is an attempt to make that happen, and to improve health and economic outcomes in Africa – and beyond."

Explore further: Drone postal deliveries begin in Switzerland

Related Stories

Drone postal deliveries begin in Switzerland

July 7, 2015

Wondering where your package is? Look up! Switzerland's postal service said Tuesday it had begun testing parcel deliveries by unmanned drones, although widespread use of the flying postmen is not likely to kick in for another ...

Japan government eyes urban drone ban

June 3, 2015

Japan plans to ban the public from flying drones above residential areas and at night, as it scrambles to legislate after a device was found on top of the prime minister's office in April.

Schumer wants to keep drones way from airports, major events

September 13, 2015

Drone manufacturers would be forced to implement technology to keep the unmanned crafts away from airports and possibly events like parades and major sporting contests under a proposal Sen. Charles Schumer plans to introduce ...

Augmented reality for drones

April 3, 2015

Affordable eyes in the sky, drones have fast become a popular and versatile tool for land mapping. Now ESA-backed startup Sysveo has developed a way of integrating user-made augmented reality objects into a drone's video ...

Drones at CES: Sky's the Limit

January 8, 2015

When you're searching for the hottest gadgets on the floor of this year's consumer electronics show, be sure to look up. For the first time ever, there's an International CES section dedicated to drones. More than 20 companies ...

Recommended for you

Musk, Zuckerberg duel over artificial intelligence

July 25, 2017

Visionary entrepreneur Elon Musk and Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg were trading jabs on social media over artificial intelligence this week in a debate that has turned personal between the two technology luminaries.

Microsoft Paint brushed aside

July 24, 2017

Microsoft on Monday announced the end of days for its pioneering Paint application as it focuses on software for 3-D drawing.

Hyperloop or hyperbole? Musk promises NY-DC run in 29 mins

July 21, 2017

US entrepreneur Elon Musk said Thursday he'd received tentative approval from the government to build a conceptual "hyperloop" system that would blast passenger pods down vacuum-sealed tubes from New York to Washington at ...

Google, EU dig in for long war

July 20, 2017

Google and the EU are gearing up for a battle that could last years, with the Silicon Valley behemoth facing a relentless challenge to its ambition to expand beyond search results.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.