We Are the World — UAVs for Africa

It’s been nearly 30 years since USA for Africa recorded We Are The World, a song that still gets stuck in my head sometimes. That song raised a bunch of money and awareness for the plight of Africans; yet Africa is still a place marred by poverty, violence, and hopelessness. Sadly, money (alone) is not the answer to solving these problems.

Not long ago, my wife and I met up with a friend of ours, Shelvis Smith-Mather, who has been working for the last several years in South Sudan to promote reconciliation among rival groups in the area (you can read more about Shelvis and Nancy’s amazing story here–and if you’re inclined, they can always use financial support). One of the many problems that South Sudan is struggling to overcome is a lack of infrastructure. Shelvis told me that the country has a grand total of less than ten miles of paved roads. This makes ground transportation of goods and services, including critical medical supplies, difficult and slow. Unfortunately, air transportation of goods is not feasible due to the costs (and risks) of fuel, airplane, and pilot. This sparked an idea–can we get rid of the pilot and reduce airplane and fuel costs by employing a UAV?

Delivery ‘drones’: we can do much better than just pizza.

What would this look like?  Well–several companies and agencies appear to be working on something like this. A company called Matternet is taking a “moon-shot” type of approach, by designing an integrated network of quadcopters and charging stations that would operate like the internet, but with stuff instead of data. EPFL is sponsoring the Flying Donkey Challenge, in which teams design rugged flying robots for delivery of suitcase-sized loads over long distances. Google’s Project Wing seems to be developing technology that could be similarly employed, but it’s hard to tell if they want to do philanthropy with it, or if it is a competitor to Amazon Prime Air.

The use of UAVs for routine delivery of small-volume, high-value goods could bring connectivity to developing nations and alleviate poverty in a way similar to what cellphones have already done for them. To illustrate, imagine a man in a poor, remote village whose sister falls ill. He may have to travel on foot for a day to the next town to find the doctor, only to discover the doctor isn’t there and spend another day returning home. The landline telephone system is unreliable if it even exists. The same man with a cellphone can make a few phone calls to get the same information, saving two days of productivity. UAVs could provide a similar benefit–providing a lifeline of critical supplies without requiring the construction and maintenance costs of a road network.

I’ve always admired the work that, for example, civil and mechanical engineers could do through organizations such as Engineers Without Borders. I’ve often wondered how I could similarly use my profession for philanthropic ends–aerospace has always been in my mind the realm of big companies and defense contractors.   I believe this could be it.

I also believe that there is a hole in the efforts of both Matternet and Flying Donkey–they are both at least five years away from fruition.  I believe that this is an engineering challenge which could be solved in three to six months with off-the-shelf components, which could be serving people’s needs almost immediately.

One thought on “We Are the World — UAVs for Africa”

  1. I’ve had some very minimal experience with Matternet. My understanding is they are somehow linked with Singularity University (http://singularityu.org/), but I didn’t realise they were a fully fledged company that is currently hiring. I think the concept is fantastic, but some of their technical constraints I think will ultimately limit the idea’s success in its current guise.

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