DAKAR — African militaries want surveillance drones to help them patrol their borders and vast open spaces, but engineers and entrepreneurs say unmanned aerial vehicles could do so much more than just track the bad guys. They could deliver medicines, protect endangered species, and drive economic growth, with cargo drones moving goods quickly and cheaply. But some experts warn that opening up civilian air space to drones, even for such purportedly "good" uses, could create problems in the long run.
Kenyan engineer James Munyoki has built several drones. His latest prototype can carry 6 kilograms. He is working on getting that up to 10. "When I started building them, I was thinking the payload would be something like a camera for surveillance purposes. We need that in Kenya. That would enhance security," he explained. "Apart from that, it can also monitor traffic. These are drones that can be used for journalism or photography, so the application is not just going to be for military purpose or security purpose."
Drones, not just for military
Unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as UAV's or drones, are not just for the military anymore, and experts say Africa is where this technology, so associated with killing and controversy, could come to seek redemption, or at least rebranding.
Rangers in South Africa are flying small "eco-drones" over game reserves to watch over endangered rhinos.
Some experts said "disaster drones" could monitor refugee flows or human rights abuses, assist in "search and rescue" missions, and even, one day, deliver aid to hard-to-reach or dangerous areas.
Use in medicine
It sounds pretty space age -- that vaccines could whiz themselves to village health clinics in temperature-controlled flying bins -- but corporations and institutions, like the Gates Foundation, are working on exactly that kind of thing right now.
From Silicon Valley to robotics labs in Kenya to tech start-ups in New Zealand, innovators are looking at Africa's surging economic growth and pathetically bad roads and seeing opportunity for the so-called "leapfrog continent" to make another technological skip forward.
Some envision vast, autonomous networks of battery-powered hovercrafts or quadcopters, the size of pizza boxes, hopping from recharge station to recharge station as the network delivers small payloads to city suburbs or remote villages.
Use in agriculture
Arturo Pelayo of the tech company ARIA, or Autonomous Roadless Intelligent Array, gives the example of a farmer with a broken tractor. "You could have a farmer take a picture of the part that broke. There would an engine on the cloud of the system that would analyze that picture. It would identify what part broke. This picture that is taken, it is sent to the nearest station, which is a retro-fitted shipping container with its own solar panel or wind or renewable energy source. And there is a 3-D printer that can print the replacement part for this farmer right then and there," he said. "He can have the part from an hour or two from the time it is printed. He gets charged to his cell phone directly and he gets the instructions on the phone on how to install the part."
Some of this technology doesn't exist yet, including some of the all-important "search and avoid" sensor capabilities that would keep these little aircraft from running into trees or each other. Drones still tend to crash a lot and they are pretty expensive.
And then there's the issue that you can't just fly things around in the civilian airspace of most countries without the proper laws, permissions and flight control coordination. Laws related to civilian drone use don't even exist in African countries, yet.
And then there's the design of the aircraft themselves.
A series of contests in Africa aimed at finding answers to these and other questions is set to kick off in 2014.
It's called the Flying Donkey Challenge and it will culminate in 2020 with a race around Mount Kenya by UAV inventions capable of carrying 20 kg over 50 km in under an hour.
Use in commerce
The challenge's director, Jonathan Ledgard, said these "flying donkeys," or large "cargo robots" "The only "d" word we use is donkey," he stated. "We don't like to use the word drone."
He said these "donkeys" haven't been invented yet, so no one really knows what they will look like or be like. But they will need to be pretty high-tech while also being rugged and affordable. "The price of a medium quality motorbike…you need something that locally is going to be able to be repaired and fixed quite easily," Ledgard stated.
He sees "donkeys" fueling growth in light manufacturing and an explosion in e-commerce as Africa's population booms and increasingly gets online.
"You can imagine flying donkey corridors, air corridors, which are basically alongside the road and just flying stuff back and forth all day," Ledgard said.
But some experts say shaking off the drone stigma won't be so easy.
Self-professed technology skeptic, Kristin Sandvik, Director of the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies, says drones may resolve some issues but they will raise others.
"Across Africa, very few countries have comprehensive domestic legislation on privacy and data protection and information storage….A drone cannot only see or listen. It can also sense and hear and read for example so in a couple of years time when you have the smaller drones also outfitted with facial recognition technology. For example, you could have smaller drones that could potentially hack into wireless systems," said Sandvik.
Drones, she said, are also pretty easy to hack into, and they can have dual capabilities, both things that could prove problematic, for example for an aid agency using a camera-outfitted drone to deliver relief items to a refugee camp.
"Is the drone going to then give [over] all of this humanitarian crisis mapping information? Is that going to be handed over the International Criminal Court for example?" Sandvik questioned.
But skeptics and dreamers alike do agree on something. This technology is coming, likely within the next decade, so Africa, get ready.