A DHL delivery drone on a test flight in Germany in December. The Flying Donkey Challenge wants to build bigger, cheaper versions of delivery drones to use in Africa. (Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
There's a lot of skepticism around drones — and for good, often frightening reasons — but the unmanned flying objects might be more helpful to humanity than we know. (And no, we're not just talking about getting our books faster.)
On Monday, the first 33 entrants into the inaugural Flying Donkey Challenge were announced. The contest, supported by the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne and the Suiss National Centre of Competence in Research, is meant to encourage ideas for cargo robots capable of lifting heavy loads over long distances. The aim is to build affordable, efficient drones — or "flying donkeys" — that are able to carry at least 20 kilos over 50 kilometres in less than an hour. And the project aims to deploy the winning model by 2020.
The entrants will have until November to design and perfect their crafts. Then the challenge begins. It's a 24-hour race around Mount Kenya, with the drones having to deliver and collect payloads as they go, as well as perform specific tasks like precision take-off and navigation without a GPS signal. The materials for each team must cost less than $500. And while it's open to teams around the world, every team must collaborate in some way with an African institute, school or lab. The winner gets a one-million-dollar prize.
“The fact is, there’s incredible growth happening there, but not a lot of infrastructure. Roads just can’t be built fast enough. So why not use flying robots instead?” Simon Johnson, director of the Flying Donkey Challenge, told Quartz.
The idea is to make the delivery of food, building materials and aid packages across Africa easier and more efficient, as the continent's population grows. It's a rare good news story in the field of unmanned aircraft (since recent drone stories have either been satires or decidedly bad news). And it's potentially a good news story for developing countries in Africa, which stand to benefit if the Flying Donkey project goes according to plan.
"Africa is fast becoming an adopter of cutting-edge technologies to overcome its infrastructure gap," Kamal Bhattacharya, Director of IBM Research, Africa, said in a press release. "Commercial drone technology has strong potential here to help overcome the limitations of the continent's transportation infrastructure and deliver goods and services in remote regions — spurring new models for business and service delivery."