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Can drones be used for social good?

Could drones transport goods to people who live in remote areas?
Could drones transport goods to people who live in remote areas?

Amazon recently announced that in five years' time, they hope to use unmanned drones to deliver their goods. “I know this looks like science fiction, but it's not,” said Jeff Bezos, Amazon boss. Flying couriers are an exciting technology. Could they be used to help some of the world's most marginalised people? Rainbow Wilcox investigates...

A few days ago, Amazon unveiled its futuristic solution to delivering items we order on the website. ‘Amazon Prime Air’ drones are flying delivery vehicles, or electric drones, known as ‘octocopters’. Amazon boss, Jeff Bezos, boasted that these flying robots could carry goods weighing up to 2.3kg, and deliver to a customer within 30 minutes of placing an order if they are in a 10 mile radius of a warehouse. If practical concerns can be overcome, he hopes that these air-bound couriers will be ready for use in five years. Domino’s Pizza has also revealed plans earlier this year to deliver takeaways via ‘Domicoptor’ drones. 

It’s an exciting technology. But could this innovation be used to deliver more than pizzas and books? Could electric drones be recruited to deliver essential items such as medicine and food-aid? Could they be used to transport goods to people who live in remote areas where there is poor infrastructure and no usable roads? Since 2011, the start-up company Matternet have been working on exactly this idea. 

Deliver vital supplies

In sub-Saharan Africa 85% of the roads are unusable during the rainy season

Matternet aims to create networks of small unmanned flying vehicles, which deliver vital supplies to hard-to-reach areas. The name ‘Mattternet’ comes from the idea that these networks would be like the internet, but for physical things. Rather than networks of information, Matternet envisions networks which transport essential items - without roads. 

In his TED talk, Andreas Raptopoulos from Matternet says that, “In sub-Saharan Africa 85% of the roads are unusable during the rainy season. Imagine if you are in Mali with a newborn in urgent need of medication - it may take days to come." However, with the use of small flying vehicles, goods such as medicine could be requested by a mobile phone and delivered in a few hours. The start-up is associated with the Singularity University in California, where technologies are recruited to address some of the world's biggest problems.

One billion people isolated

Drone technology has huge potential to support the world’s most marginalised. It is estimated that one billion people across the world have inadequate access to food, water, medicine, and other essential supplies due to a lack of roads, ports, bridges and trains. Often road networks are not established or poorly maintained in developing countries. In Africa, there are fewer roads in the continent today than 30 years ago because of poor maintenance. In Burma only 12% of the roads are paved and in Cambodia, only 20% of the roads are paved and in usable condition. 

When someone is geographically isolated, it is difficult for them to take part in social and economic systems, meaning that paths out of poverty remain blocked. Small flying robots have the potential to remove these obstacles, and ensure that anyone, anywhere, can access the essentials they need. 

Drones could deliver medical supplies to remote areas

Deliver “products, services or care”

Matternet tested prototypes in Haiti in 2012, and delivered medical supplies via flying vehicles to camps set up after the devastating earthquakes. In the Dominican Republic, Matternet drones have delivered supplies, information and diagnostic tools from large medical centres to ones which are in remote rural areas. There are also plans to connect HIV/AIDS clinics in Lesotho to patients by using drones, so that patients can receive better care and faster tests. 

Flying couriers could also help in disasters, and respond immediately to people in need before they can be reached by other means. They could deliver food and water to areas that need it in times of crisis, war or disaster. Marc Shillum from Matternet says,

“A whole load of people can’t access the world’s products, services or care. We want to bring fulfilment to where need exists rather than where roads end. The beauty of unmanned autonomous vehicles is that there’s no physical infrastructure. They fly wherever there is air.”

Inclusive innovation

Amazon customers may be excited that in the future, their goods could be delivered shortly after an order has been placed. For others around the world, flying delivery vehicles signal the possibility of receiving the medical supplies, food and support that they need to survive. Worried parents in remote areas could get medicine for their sick child, and families affected by disaster could quickly receive food and safe drinking water. New technology opens up possibilities. It's important that everyone benefits from innovation - especially those most in need.

Rainbow Wilcox is Web Content Editor for SOS Children. Find out more about their development work in Africa...