Medical drones could beat Amazon to the skies, with Harvard help

The less you’ve got, the less you’ve got to lose. Which is why cargo delivery drones may become popular in Africa long before they catch on over here.

Jonathan Ledgard thinks it’ll happen. The former chief Africa correspondent of the news magazine The Economist is coming to Boston on Thursday to lay out his plan to build a cargo network called Redline. Developed with help from students at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and backed by the government of Switzerland, Redline will use drones to deliver medical supplies to remote parts of Rwanda. It has already raised $8 million.

“I think the first route will be up and running next year,” Ledgard told me.

Rwanda’s a long way from Silicon Valley. Best known for a terrible spate of tribal violence in 1994, it’s a poor nation, with average per capita income of less than $600 per year. But automated drones don’t need the costly infrastructure that Americans take for granted. Just give them a place to take off and land, and tell them where to go.

Ledgard notes that while the US Federal Aviation Administration must be cautious about admittting drones into America’s already crowded air lanes, “the African sky is pretty open.” That makes it simpler for the Rwandan government to draw up the necessary regulations; a first draft should be completed soon, according to a comment last month from the country’s minister of information technology.

So cargo drones could be serving Rwandans long before Amazon.com gets permission to fly packages to our doorsteps.

During his 10 years covering Africa, Ledgard watched as cell phones transformed the lives of millions. Impoverished nations that could never have strung copper wires to every home instead propped up radio towers and imported handsets so cheap that nearly everybody could afford one. He believes cargo drones could have a similar impact, by enabling reliable delivery of mail, packages, and vital supplies without first spending millions on roads and airports.

“Everything we’re doing is framed within the very real political and economic restraints of 21st century Africa,” said Ledgard. “It’s not pie in the sky.”

The prototype Redline drone is a fixed-wing battery-powered bird that cost about $700 to build. It’s capable of carrying a six-pound load about 90 miles. When the system goes live, Ledgard plans to use a drone that can go 30 miles with a payload of around 20 pounds. That’s enough to carry 10 liters of the first product the company plans to ship — human blood.

Lots of Rwandans suffer from sickle-cell anemia, and blood transfusions are a standard treatment. But fresh blood often can’t be delivered to remote areas in time. Ledgard estimated that if Redline can make six blood deliveries per day, the service could save nearly 4,300 Rwandan lives per year.

Not that the drones will deliver directly to clinics. They’ll fly between “droneports” set up in areas with road connections. From there, people on motorbikes wlll pick up cargoes and ferry them to villages. That’s part of the play, said Ledgard. He wants Redline to provide work for delivery drivers, not put them out of business by offering door-to-door service.

Rwandans will also get work building the droneports, which are being designed by British architect Norman Foster, whose firm did the Art of the Americas wing of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Each droneport will be made of local clay mixed with concrete and shielded with a waterproof coating. John Ochsendorf, a professor of civil engineering at MIT, came up with the blend. “Because we’re not putting steel in it, it ought to sit there a very long time,” Ochsendorf said. “For centuries.”

If Redline succeeds, Ledgard and his colleagues are already planning the sequel — a general cargo service to be called Blueline. They hope to deploy drones with an 18-foot wingspan, each capable of carrying 220 pounds for 60 miles. And even before it leaves the ground, Redline has competition. A California robotics company called Zipline has signed a separate deal with the Rwandan government to deliver medical supplies by drone.

Redline could end up as just another failed African development project. Or it could become the world’s first successful drone delivery service, beating out big US companies like Amazon.

“One of the things that gets me out of bed in the morning,” said Ledgard, “is this childlike dream I have of the year 2022 or 2023 when I’m out in the American West and I meet a farmer who has to drive 20 miles into town to get a spare part. And he grumbles that in Africa…the spare part would come to him.”

Hiawatha Bray is a technology reporter for the Boston Globe. E-mail him at [email protected].
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