cargo drones © Red Line

Drones for Development

Unmanned aerial vehicles have populated the nightmares of people around the world in recent years, largely owing to their military and potentially malign applications. But cargo drones embody what the World Bank’s Jim Yong Kim calls the “science of delivery,” promising to get essential goods and services to the neediest people.

LAUSANNE – Unmanned aerial vehicles have populated both the imagination and nightmares of people around the world in recent years. In April, the United States Navy announced an experimental program called LOCUST (Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology), which officials promise will “autonomously overwhelm an adversary” and thus “provide Sailors and Marines a decisive tactical advantage.” With a name and a mission like that – and given the spotty ethical track record of drone warfare – it is little wonder that many are queasy about the continued proliferation of flying robots.

But the industrial use of the lower sky is here to stay. More than three million humans are in the air daily. Every large human settlement on our planet is connected to another by air transport. DJI, a Chinese UAV manufacturer, is seeking a $10 billion valuation. Cargo drones will grow into an even larger industry in the coming years, simply because, unencumbered by the weight of humans and their life-support systems, they will fly more cheaply but be just as fast and safe.

In rich countries, early interest in cargo drones has focused on the so-called last mile – a tub of sorbet onto a suburban lawn. But the bigger opportunities are in flying the middle mile in poorer countries. Some 800 million people around the world have limited access to emergency services, and that will not change in the foreseeable future, because there will not be enough money to build roads to connect them. By flying medium-size loads middling distances to many of these isolated communities, cargo drones can save lives and create jobs.

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