As accessibility continues to remain a major constraint for the logistics sector in Africa especially for the last mile delivery, drones have come as life saver for the industry. Drones bring to the continent the most unbelievable benefit of technology which is speedy delivery, initially for humanitarian purposes. Eventually, commercial drone delivery will revolutionise the logistics sector by providing low-cost solutions in sectors such as e-commerce; oil, gas and mining; infrastructure utilities; border control and security. Twinkle Sahita reports

In Rwanda, a remote east African country, there is nothing more precious than blood as it saves lives. An estimated 325 pregnant women per 100,000 die each year, often from postpartum haemorrhage.

Many of these deaths can be prevented if the women receive blood in time for a life-saving transfusion. During Rwanda’s lengthy rainy season, many roads wash out becoming impassable or non-existent. The result is that all too often someone in need of a lifesaving transfusion cannot access the blood they need to survive.

Throughout the developing world, access to lifesaving and critical health products is hampered by the last-mile problem: the inability to deliver needed medicine from a city to rural or remote locations due to lack of adequate transportation, communication and supply chain infrastructure.

To create faster access to life saving medicines, Rwandan President Paul Kagame launched in October the world’s first national drone delivery service. The Rwandan government is now using drones to make up to 150 on-demand, emergency deliveries per day of life-saving blood to 21 transfusing facilities located in the western half of the country. The Droneport project in Rwanda is major initiative to support this new technological development. The project is a collaboration between Redline partners led by led by Afrotech, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL); the Norman Foster Foundation; and Foster + Partners.

“While Rwanda’s drone delivery service will initially focus on blood, an international public-private partnership between UPS, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and Zipline will help the country quickly expand the types of medicines that can be delivered. There is potential for expansion to include vaccines, treatment for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other life-saving medicines,” informs Jean-Francois Condamine, president - Indian Subcontinent, Middle East, and Africa District, UPS.

“Over the course of the next year, and with the support of the partnership with Zipline and Gavi, UPS plans to expand drone delivery services to countries across Africa and the Americas. Additionally, Zipline recently announced plans at the White House to expand its service to the United States, where it will serve Indian reservations in Maryland, Nevada, and Washington State. While it is too early to determine whether similar uses for drones would work well in the Indian Subcontinent, Middle East, and Africa (ISMEA) region, a new door is open and we are excited about future opportunities.”

Kenya Civil Aviation Authority has released the draft regulations on Drones in mid 2016 and engaged with local stakeholders after which many amendments were made. Kenya based Astral Aviation also plans to operate commercial drones. However, it has seen slight delays in receiving the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) regulatory approvals.

“The regulations have not been approved as at December 2016 and is likely to be approved by early 2017,” says Sanjeev Gadhia, founder & CEO, Astral Aviation.

Following the delays being experienced in Kenya, Astral Aerial Solutions which is Astral Aviation's drone venture, has set-up in Kigali, Rwanda and is awaiting type-approval on its two commercial drones, after which it will make arrangements to imports the drones for field-tests in Rwanda, before launching commercial operations.

Another country in Africa, Malawi, has already tested drones to explore cost effective ways of reducing waiting times for HIV testing of infants. The government of Malawi recently announced its cooperation with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to establish an air corridor and use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), known as drones, for humanitarian purposes. “Malawi has over the past years faced serious droughts and flooding,” stated Malawi’s Minister of Transport and Public Works, Jappie Mhango. “The launch of the UAS testing corridor is particularly important to support transportation and data collection where land transport infrastructure is either not feasible or difficult during emergencies.”

The corridor will be the first one in Africa, and the first one to be used globally for humanitarian and development purposes, the agency reports. It will become fully operational by April 2017, while its distance is expected to be no longer than 40 kilometres. The agency has already had a pilot test run in March 2016, using UAS for the transportation of dried blood samples for early infant diagnosis of HIV. According to UNICEF, the system proved to be efficient and valuable. In the following months, the Malawi Government and UNICEF will finalise the details and identify potential UAS operators that can function in the case of disasters in the region and put in place stand-by agreements to ensure a rapid emergency response.

Another interesting move undertaken by the City of Cape Town is that it will fly hi-tech drones to spot sharks at the most popular beaches, Fish Hoek and Muizenberg. weFix, Cape Town’s popular tech entrepreneurs, has announced a partnership to donate hi-tech drones to NPO, Shark Spotters for increased surveillance of these two beaches most vulnerable to shark interaction.

Logistics giant DHL is eyeing Africa for drone delivery, according to recent news reports. The reports mention that DHL International has expressed confidence that the introduction of a drone delivery service, currently on a trial run in Europe and other parts of the world, will give it a new reach, especially in remote parts of Africa.

Drones are already being tested in other emerging economies of Africa, such as Zimbabwe that is planning to deploy drones to monitor wildlife in its national parks and to curb poaching of elephants, rhinos and other species.

South Africa is already using the service to fight rhino poaching.

Matternet, another Silicon Valley startup, has run pilots moving samples from rural clinics to a laboratory in Papua New Guinea and is launching a small medical delivery network in Dominican Republic. The company is also working with Unicef in Malawi to develop a project using UAVs to carry blood samples from infants born to HIV-positive parents.

There are various issues associated with this development that will revolutionise the logistics sector. One such major issue is regulatory issues. Almost all African countries face the issue of regulation as far as the use of commercial drones is concerned.

There are several regulatory issues relating to commercial drones based on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) guidelines relating to the flight level, operational control, safety and security factors, hence the delays being experienced in drafting and approving the regulations, which are different for each country. For instance, in Kenya, there is a strong focus on security due to the high risk of terrorism hence the drones should not get into the wrong-hands.

The way ahead

Drones will potentially transform the delivery process in the continent. As growing number of consumers demand instant delivery, drones are likely to be the future of delivery.

Apart from this major development, the African government is focusing on improving infrastructure facilities that has been one of the major factors for slow economic growth of the country. Massive infrastructure projects are underway in the continent.

The recent McKinsey & Company report on ‘Parcel delivery: The future of last mile’ mentions few other delivery models such as Autonomous Ground Vehicles (AGVs) with parcel lockers, Semi autonomous ground vehicles and droids (small autonomous vehicles) apart from drones and bike couriers.

If Africa sees infrastructure developments soon, apart from drones, one can also witness these delivery models delivering the parcel to customer’s doorstep.

AGVs will also prove the delivery model of choice for same-day and time-window items.

Semi autonomous ground vehicles can help the delivery person could utilise the driving time efficiently to take care of sorting or smaller administrative tasks, e.g., scanning or announcing arrival while the vehicle does the driving.

Small autonomous vehicles, only slightly larger than a regular parcel, deliver parcels to the doorstep. These vehicles are relatively slow at 5 to 10 km/h and use the sidewalk rather than the street to reach their destination.

“Airports and Ports are being upgraded in addition to investments in rail networks such as the Djibouti - Addis Ababa rail and the Mombasa - Nairobi rail, both which were funded by China,” adds Gadhia, Astral Aviation.

“Customs authorities are being integrated at a regional level with the aim of improving transit times. African governments are placing high priority on infrastructure as they have realised that they can only achieve prosperity based on the foundation of a solid infrastructure.”

Photo: Artistic impression of Droneport in Rwanda

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