When I wrote about drones as a potential leapfrog technology last year, it seemed like a long way off. After all, commercial transport drones aren’t being used anywhere just yet. But there was a step towards that possibility recently as the Norman Foster Foundation unveiled plans for the world’s first commercial drone port – and it’s in Rwanda.
That’s a logical place to trial it. Rwanda has poor transport infrastructure, and its mountainous terrain makes it much more expensive to build roads or railways. They can’t replace those entirely, but for urgent deliveries or small packages, drones may be a much cheaper prospect. The Fosters and Partners website suggests that “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.”
The droneport would be served by two services, the redline and the blueline, each with a range of 100 kilometres or so. The former would be for medical deliveries, especially blood supplies. The second would be commercial, using larger drones to bring in mail or spare parts, and opening up rural areas to e-commerce. There’s little information about the aircraft at the moment, but they are expected to have a three metre wingspan and be able to carry 10kg, with larger ones anticipated in future.
The droneport would also be a community hub, including a post office and a clinic. A fabrication workshop would be able to maintain and eventually manufacture the drones, which would be important if it is to be an accessible and appropriate technology. The building itself is designed with similar principles in mind. It can be built from local materials, with just the framework and a brick press delivered to the site – a technique that the architects developed while investigating ways to build on the moon.
Fosters are planning an initial three ports over the next four years, and they imagine the droneport as a ‘new typology’ of building, something that will turn out to be as commonplace as a petrol station.
There are lots of obstacles to that, even having got this far. First the regulatory framework for unmanned airborne vehicles needs to be put in place, something the Rwandan government is keen to get right. You need a commercial partner to deliver the services that will make it worthwhile, and that needs the kind of ‘workhorse’ drones that can operate safely and reliably in an African context – the aerial equivalent of a basic Yamaha motorbike. But someone’s got to try it first, and I’d assumed it was going to be Amazon or DHL. If it turns out to be Rwanda, that’s a whole lot more interesting.