Drones, those unmanned aerial robots used by the military, have had devastating impacts on adversaries in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They’re also controversial for their possible roles in domestic spying, and suspected of being somewhat less accurate than their military users would suggest.
But the drone technology might have a more peaceful role to play. They could be used to deliver drugs and other humanitarian aid. Regions devastated by earthquake, flood, or remote areas suffering from diseases could have crucial supplies and medicines delivered to places where there are no roads.
While drones can work in remote areas, their humanitarian use could also solve a large problem with delivery of aid; corrupt officials and bandits. Jack Chow, a former AIDS Ambassador and now a public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University, cited several examples of what can prove obstacles to aid:
• A sophisticated ring of thieves was operating in several African countries, stealing anti-malaria drugs and selling them on the black market.
• The U.S. Agency for International Development found that inefficient supply processes left mosquito nets stored in warehouses in Nigeria; these supply lags opened the door to theft by corrupt local officials.
• In Darfur, murders, kidnappings and intimidation of aid workers helped stop aid operations there.
Drones, say Chow and other technology developers, could literally fly over all that. Aria, a small startup firm, is working on creating flight paths or networks to be used by drones to make deliveries. Another company, Matternet, is working on making drones that can deliver higher payloads. Matternet is testing drones that could carry up to two kilograms—an ample supply of medicines. The drones can now cover about 10 kilometers in about 15 minutes. Matternet is setting up a test site in Lesotho that costs about $900,000 for the initial set up; each flight would cost 24 cents US. Compare that to $1 million US for two kilometers of a one-lane road. And that doesn’t include bribes and armed security.
Matternet also has tested drones in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, successfully delivering diagnostic supplies to earthquake-ravaged areas of Haiti, and acting as a courier service in the D.R.
The technology could make a huge difference in developing countries. AIDS patients, who need constant supplies of drugs, could rely on more dependable deliveries. Drones could be first responders to scenes of disasters, delivering temperature-sensitive drugs in refrigerated containers, and even sending back images detailing the extent of the disaster.
Drug delivering drones still face some headwinds. One is a dispute between Matternet and aria, over how the technology driving the drones should be handled. Matternet wants to keep its main technology proprietary, and sell it to governments and non-governmental organizations. Aria, on the other hand, wants its technology to be open source, and based on publicly available platforms. Another issue could arise from attacks against drones by outlaws and other regimes, or even the use of attack drones against peaceful ones. And, storage capacity isn’t exactly the same as a convoy of trucks.
But we once thought that airplanes couldn’t carry payloads either; before the atomic bomb and the Berlin Airlift of 1949.
Photo: Mike Miley