Rwanda set to become first country to deliver cargo using commercial drones

Artist's impression: Droneport exterior view. Picture supplied by Foster + Partners.

An artist’s impression of the drone port exterior. Picture supplied by Foster + Partners.

Imaginations flew high when leading e-commerce site Amazon announced plans to start delivering packages by unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones. Consumers could now picture a world where the sky was filled with flying robots delivering products, and Amazon has since been trying to work with regulators in the US to get permission to achieve this.

But Rwanda might do this first.

The small, landlocked country – dubbed the Land of a Thousand Hills – is expected to start construction in November on the world’s first commercial drone airport outside Kibuye, a town in Western Rwanda on Lake Kivu.

The port will be one of three buildings expected to be completed by 2020 to support a cargo drone route that will reach almost half of the country. The project is being led by Afrotech, an African technology initiative by Swiss research university Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), and Foster + Partners, a London-based architecture firm. It is estimated to cost US$10m.

Currently there are two proposed networks. The first, called the Redline, will focus on delivering mostly medical and emergency supplies, while the Blueline will be the commercial arm and used to subsidise the Redline’s operations. It will support e-commerce delivery and transport larger items such as spare parts and electronics.

Unlike the proposed Amazon delivery drones – which deliver small parcels of just over 2kg within a 16km radius – the Rwandan project will initially deploy drones with three-metre wingspans and capable of carrying loads of 10kg over a distance of 100km. By 2025 these drones could double in size and carry loads of up to 100kg.

Potential economic game-changer

The drone ports are the brainchild of Jonathan Ledgard, director of Afrotech. Having previously worked as an African correspondent for The Economist, Ledgard said the idea was born from awareness that there is simply not enough money to build the type of industrial road networks that Africa requires. He believes that drone cargo transport will in some ways leapfrog traditional road and rail infrastructure needs, especially for secondary towns which the Rwandan pilot project is targeting.

“The density of road networks is incredibly poor in most African countries. And what that means is that secondary towns of 20,000 to 100,000 people are not connected to other towns unless they happen to be along the route to a capital city,” explained Ledgard.

“This is because these economies developed around commodity extraction, so they didn’t really develop a strong road network.”

Trials currently suggest that cargo delivery via drones in Rwanda will be twice as cheap and twice as fast as some other road delivery options.

“But if you look at eastern Congo, we think it will probably be about seven-times faster and maybe up to 10-times cheaper than the best available alternative, because there is no road infrastructure whatsoever.”

He estimates that six drone flights a day, each carrying around 10kg between two ports, will result in an annual economic impact of near $3m and have a multiplier effect on job creation.

“And it will have a significant contribution in terms of allowing new business models to start-up, as well as improving and optimising government services, particularly the health service.”

Artist's impression of the drone port's exterior and community. Picture supplied by Foster + Partners.

Artist’s impression of the drone port’s exterior and community. Picture supplied by Foster + Partners.

Ledgard added the warehousing infrastructure alone will hold benefits, as each port will be developed with advanced facilities that track and store deliveries and pharmaceuticals.

Pioneering an industry

The Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority is currently developing world-first regulations around cargo-transporting drones that could be used to model similar initiatives in other countries. Ledgard said regulations will mainly be constructed around the safety and security of both the general public and the cargo. This means ensuring drones never enter manned airspace and that measures are in place (such as parachutes) to make sure that if a drone fails, it hits the ground with minimum impact. Other regulations will also need to be in place to make sure that drones and ports are in secure locations so as not to fall prey to criminal activities.

According to Ledgard, Rwanda was chosen as the country to pilot the project due to its “progressive economy” and reputation for adopting new technology to solve challenges. However, once up and running, he hopes the drone port industry will receive large investments and be rolled out into other African countries and emerging markets.

“Of course if we can [prove its concept] then we will move it into the Congo and countries like Ethiopia,” he continued.

“Ethiopia is an incredible country for this technology. Its geography is huge with populations living in mountainous, remote regions without enough road transport. So we will roll out quite quickly from there.”