Above & Beyond

Greg Murray of Aviation Advocacy mulls what Europe and the US could learn from Africa about drones

Last month Amazon announced that it would be partnering up with the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to test its Prime Air delivery service. Amazon’s tests would involve flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), the use of sensors for avoiding obstacles, as well as the possibility of multiple drones controlled by a single operator.

The CAA has been lauded for its part in allowing these tests. Paul Misener, Amazon’s VP of global innovation policy and communications, has gone as far as claiming that ‘the UK is a leader in enabling drone innovation’.

Misener’s statement served as a not-so-subtle jab at the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), who released their own drone regulations in June. The regulations banned BVLOS operations, flights over members of the public, and the ability of pilots to control multiple drones at one time, effectively scuppering the plans for a Prime Air service. Amazon’s reaction was to pack up their US based operations and relocate to the UK, a move that it threatened last year in response to the FAA’s proposed rules.

Although somewhat overshadowed by drone delivery operations in the Western world, there have been positive stories emerging from Africa. For example, Zipline, a company founded in 2014, is using drones to deliver blood to hospitals in Zimbabwe. Working in coordination with Zimbabwe’s National Centre for Blood Transfusion, Zipline, plans on making from 50 to 150 deliveries per day, to 21 facilities across the country.

The 15 Zips (as Zipline’s drones are referred to) weigh roughly 22 pounds and are capable of making 28 mile round trips, travelling at speeds up to 85 mph. When the time comes to make the drop, rather than landing they simply release the package, which falls with the aid of a cheaply constructed paper parachute. All the hospital workers need is a mobile phone to text their request, and a drop point that is roughly 15 square feet.

Elsewhere in the African continent, there are further examples of medical drone usage. An American company, Matternet, is working alongside UNICEF to trial the use of drones for delivering HIV tests for children in Malawi. Médecins sans Frontiéres are also trialling the use of medical drones in Papua New Guinea and Liberia. Despite these countries being amongst the poorest in the world, they are far ahead of some of the richest in terms of their development of a drone network.

It could be argued that countries such as Zimbabwe – the so-called ‘land of a thousand hills’ – are simply more suited to drone experimentation than the US and Europe. The low population density and relatively few high rise buildings means that, should anything go wrong, the drone is less likely to cause harm. Furthermore, considering the standard of the roads and extreme weather conditions, air travel is not only safer but more practical.

The efficiency of Zipline must be admired. The company started deliveries only two years after it was founded. Compare this with the likes of Amazon, Wallmart and 7-Eleven, who have invested a vast amount of time and resources towards drone legislation. The resulting suffocating FAA regulations are perhaps a sign that, in the Western world at least, the problem of drones is being overcomplicated.

Perhaps the most important lesson that can be learned from Zipline is that testing a practice before regulating it can be more efficient than the reverse.

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