Practice

Drones

Digital Innovation

Local innovations are the successful introduction of products, systems or services to a market or society by a stakeholder who already has a local presence. Many of these local innovations already use digital media to make processes more efficient or more independent – e.g. drones, 3D printers or virtual reality. That is why we speak of local digital innovations.

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At a glance

In recent years virtually no other technology has generated more ambivalent headlines than drones. In promising visions of the future, they circle over the roofs of metropolises delivering parcels, detect land mines in crisis areas or deliver medications to remote regions. But, used as weapons, drones quickly become a dystopian stylistic device par excellence. And not entirely without justification, as experience from conflicts in the recent past have shown. They bring the battlefield to the computer screen, where war is waged at the push of a button or with a joystick. As limited as the scenarios may be at this point, they provide a rough framework of everything that is possible using drones. In other words, drones can be helpers as well as lethal weapons.

By definition, a drone is an unmanned vehicle that either operates independently or via remote control – whether on land, in the water or in the air. But, when used in everyday language we generally think of “flying robots” or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Today’s drones often work based on the technical principle of a quadrocopter: four rotating propellers lift the drone into the air, while the speed of rotation determines the altitude. If at least two propellers move at a different speed, the aircraft turns left or right. Drone pilots generally control and communicate with the drones wirelessly or via Wi-Fi.

Due to their universal abilities, drones currently support development cooperation in various contexts. The general applications can be broken down as follows:

  1. Monitoring and surveillance. The technical extension opportunities for drones are diverse. Equipped with high-resolution cameras, they supply professional images from a bird’s-eye view; with special sensor and infra-red technology they are used to locate victims of earthquakes, survey landscapes and create precise 3D models. Drones monitor coastal or conservation areas in real time. They supply data that forecasts floods and storms and can detect when illegal deforestation takes place.
  2. Transport. Drones can reach remote regions in no time – packed with emergency medicine, vaccines or blood reserves. Airmail makes it possible to overcome inadequate or even a lack of infrastructure.
  3. Tool. In agriculture, drones help analyse plant diseases and also release beneficial insects and spray pesticides. Drones could prospectively help in large-scale reforestation activities by firing seed capsules into the soil.

Technical challenges

A number of technical aspects currently limit the potential opportunities for using drones. Above all, the maximum flight duration (around one hour) as well as the maximum load capacity (volume and weight). These two factors limit the number and type of transport goods quite significantly. Another challenge is controlling drones, which now usually takes place wirelessly or via Wi-Fi. If large numbers of drones are to be used in all areas in future, other ways will need to be found. A promising option could be controlling drones via the voice channels of the mobile phone network, as German scientists recently discovered.

Drones are involved in a number of development projects. They have the potential to save time and increase the efficiency of a solution. At the same time, drones can always only be part of an overall strategy to solve a problem. This was shown, for instance, in the Deliver Future II pilot project in Malawi in which emergency medication was delivered to largely inaccessible places by drone. In this case, it turned out that it was not just the technical solution, but particularly also the personnel explicitly assigned to the project that played a vital role in its success. This is because, besides the technical solution, additional time and manpower was now available for emergency medical care, which was not available before. To ensure the appropriate and efficient use of drones in development situations, the contextual conditions should always also be considered and improved where necessary. In connection with the supply of medicine in Malawi, this includes the bureaucratic process as well as the medical logistics in the hospitals.

Data protection as a challenge

The rapid technical progress in the field of drones and their, in some cases, potentially invasive applications make it particularly important to ensure that they are handled responsibly. This requires regulatory concepts and public debates on how to deal with the issues of data protection and privacy. This particularly applies when drones record images and videos of people who have neither given their consent nor had an opportunity to prevent this recording. Because this much is clear: drones are perfect surveillance instruments and can quickly be abused as an instrument of power. Critical voices even point to the risk that, particularly in Africa, the use of drones for war-like purposes could emerge. To prevent this, the developments should be closely monitored and scientifically supported.

Current situation

The Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) is the client of pilot and other projects that use drones for better medical supply and environmental protection:

  • As part of the Deliver Future pilot project, drones in Tanzania and Malawi delivered drugs and medical products to remote health centres. The project partners include the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the logistics company DHL, the drone manufacturer Wingcopter as well as the child welfare organisation UNICEF. The latter is now planning to establish infrastructure for the drone industry in Malawi. An African Academy for Drones and Data Technology is also in planning.

Digital Innovation

Local knowledge is the key to developing successful new solutions and locally adapted offerings on site. A large number of these local innovations are already using digital means to make processes more efficient or more independent.

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