The World’s First Drone Airport Is Set to Land in Rwanda

Designed to be cheap and robust, the drones will reach remote areas not accessible by road to provide medical supplies and goods.
Design of a future Droneport. (Photo: Foster + Partners/Facebook)
Oct 16, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

If all goes according to plan, the historically troubled East African nation of Rwanda could become home to the world’s first commercial airport for drones. Rwanda’s Civil Aviation Authority is expected to approve new and more relaxed regulations regarding the use of drones by 2016, allowing at least one company to establish a network of drone cargo routes throughout the country. Meanwhile, an international architecture firm is busy drafting up plans for the new “Droneport.”

“The Droneport project is about doing ‘more with less,’ capitalizing on the recent advancements in drone technology—something that is usually associated with war and hostilities—to make an immediate lifesaving impact in Africa,” said Lord Foster, founder of Foster + Partners, the architecture firm developing the Droneport. “Rwanda’s challenging geographical and social landscape makes it an ideal test-bed for the Droneport project. This project can have massive impact through the century and save lives immediately.”

As the developers point out, transportation infrastructure is severely limited in Africa. Two-thirds of Africans live farther than two kilometers away from usable roads, there are no major highways, and not many tunnels and bridges can reach people in remote areas. Africa’s population is also expected to double to 2.2 billion by 2050. Drones could solve the problem of delivering much-needed medicine, spare parts, commercial goods, and electronics to hard-to-reach and remote areas, for much less than it would cost to improve the country’s transportation infrastructure, according to the developers.

And, Foster explained, the drone routes could save lives. Currently, about 25 percent of malaria-related deaths in Africa are attributed to a lack of available blood, with many also dying from sickle cell disease, which requires regular blood transfusions.

But transporting emergency medical supplies like blood and medicine isn’t the only objective.

In the absence of adequate transportation infrastructure for a growing population, the Droneport developers envision them becoming as ubiquitous as the gas stations and convenience stores along roadways in more developed countries, but with a civic presence. Not only will drones come and go at the Droneport, but the new buildings will also include a health clinic, a post office, Internet cafés, and other services for the community.

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Phase one of the project includes the construction of three buildings, to be completed by 2020, that will allow the drone network to deliver supplies to 44 percent of Rwanda via a fleet of drones with three-meter wingspans capable of hauling a 22-pound cargo about 62 miles.

Additional phases call for as many as 40 Droneports throughout Rwanda, and because of the country’s central location on the continent, they will eventually serve neighboring countries as well.

The Droneport will be a hub for drone technology provided by Afrotech, which will operate two drone flight networks: a Red Line route that will deliver medical and emergency supplies to remote areas, and a Blue Line route that will deliver commercial cargo. Afrotech will subsidize the Red Line network with profits made on the Blue Line route.

“It is inevitable on a crowded planet, with limited resources, that we will make more intensive use of our sky, using flying robots to move goods faster, cheaper, and more accurately than ever before,” predicts Jonathan Ledgard, founder of Afrotech. “But it is not inevitable that these craft or their landing sites will be engineered to be tough and cheap enough to serve poorer communities who can make most use of them. This Droneport is an attempt to make that happen, and to improve health and economic outcomes in Africa—and beyond.”