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Drones Offer Breakthrough Potential in Africa’s Agricultural and Medical Industries

BY Isabella Lee
28 June 2018

Lately commercial drone adoption has been gaining momentum in Africa within two specific industries: agriculture and medicine.

And the impact has been significant—from creating safer work environments, to saving lives, to increasing crop yields. Through partnerships with drone tech leaders such as Parrot and Zipline, African countries have improved their processes and increased their productivity in fields, farms, and hospitals.

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On the Agricultural Front: CTA’s Eyes in the Sky Program

Earlier this year, the Technical Centre for Agriculture and Rural Cooperation (CTA) launched the program Eyes in the Sky in partnership with Parrot.

CTA is a program designed to support the set-up of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) services for agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. The program was a direct response to the Executive Council of the African Union’s request that African countries find ways to harness emerging drone technology.

The CTA has been accepting submissions to join their Eyes in the Sky program from interested parties in Sub-Saharan Africa who wish to receive UAS training for agricultural use. Companies/organizations selected for the program are provided these benefits:

  • An 8-day training workshop in Zambia for one company executive with travel and accommodation costs covered by CTA
  • Partial financial support for acquiring UAV equipment (UAV, sensor) and analytical software
  • One year free access to the AIRINOV FIRST+ agriculture mapping cloud platform
  • Technical backstopping until the end of 2019
  • Remote and (based on merit) onsite support for UAS business development
  • Training (distance learning) in the use of social media for marketing purposes
  • Marketing for UAS services via dedicated CTA social media platforms.

The call for submissions was closed April 10, 2018. We will keep an eye on it and post an update if it reopens.

On the Medical Front: Zipline’s Medical Deliveries

Zipline, a U.S. startup, launched the world’s first recurring commercial drone delivery service in Rwanda back in 2016. The company was contracted by the Government of Rwanda to establish a distribution center with 15 drones to deliver blood, plasma, and platelets to twenty one hospitals across the western half of the country.

Since we first wrote about the launch in 2016, Zipline’s drones have delivered 7,000 units of blood over 4,000 flights—approximately a third of which have been in emergency life-saving situations.

Catching up on what Zipline’s up to now in 2018, they have expanded their services to Tanzania, plan to begin services in the U.S., and have created the world’s fastest delivery drone. Impressive progress for just two years!

We’ve taken everything Zipline has learned making thousands of life-critical deliveries and flying hundreds of thousands of kilometers and redesigned our entire system and operation from top to bottom.

– Keller Rinaudo, CEO of Zipline

These fast deliveries enable doctors to perform life-saving operations they would not otherwise have the resources to complete.

Before implementing drone deliveries, Rwandan hospitals had limited access to medical supplies because of their remote locations. The nearest regional blood center could be hours away—too far a journey in an emergency situation. Now, thanks to Zipline, blood and other medical supplies can be delivered in under 30 minutes.

You can read more about their fastest drone and how it’s being used to deliver medical supplies like vaccines and blood in this blog post.

Drones Offer Breakthrough Potential

Like the Sub-Saharan countries of Africa, much of the world is changing the way they think about drones. Many people are starting to recognize that the potential for drones in agriculture and medicine represents a breakthrough not only of technological importance, but societal and economic importance as well.

Drones are changing the field of medicine by delivering medical supplies to remote locations. Similarly, drones are revolutionizing agriculture—making farmers’ jobs safer and easier. UAS can map and survey farm boundary lines, assess farm infrastructure, calculate crop yield estimates, and gather other data to improve agriculture management.

Additionally, the introduction of UAVs into agricultural vocations may entice educated rural youth to find employment in their own community, rather than move to urban locations.

Imagine the excitement of being a rural drone operator and creating a whole new career structure as a drone pilot, data analyst, or agronomic advisor. Those are the opportunities we are helping to create.

– Agathe Courteille, International Project Manager for Airinov

drone farming in Africa
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One big hurdle that remains for drone adoption to grow on scale in Africa is the lack of official regulations governing the use of drones in many of its countries.

Only 28% of African countries have official regulations in place governing the use of drones, and some are quite restrictive and disabling.

– Michael Hailu, Director CTA

That being said, some African countries, such as Rwanda and South Africa, have established drone policies that support the commercial use of drones—you can explore drone laws in Africa in our recently updated Master List of Drone Laws by Country.

So what breakthrough can we expect from Africa next? The more African countries develop the legislative structure for commercial drone operations to be possible—that is, the more drone laws that are passed—the more likely we are to see not only adoption grow in Africa, but breakthrough uses and applications grow as well.

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