We love to talk about drones and Amazon. But what if drones could really help Africa?

First off, to anyone that actually reads this thing, apologies for not blogging since last Wednesday; I was at a conference and ’twas hard to sit down and compose some posts. I’ll be at similar conferences twice in April, so I guess there will be a few other delays, but I have some more context — HA, see what I did there? — around the next conferences to compose a few posts while there. I did actively miss writing here, which I predominantly see as a good thing right now.

Came back and found this article about drones in Africa, including this quote:

“We feel that if drones are going to be used to transport goods, the most logical place is Africa,” Simon Johnson, director of the Flying Donkey Challenge, told Quartz. “Not for humanitarian reasons. We’re not doing this because we feel bad for Africa. It’s just the perfect place to start. 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?”

Johnson, as noted, is the head of the Flying Donkey Challenge, with a stated goal of:

Flying donkeys are large cargo robots with rugged air frames capable of lifting heavy suitcase loads over long distances. The first commercial flying donkeys, due in Africa by 2020, will carry at least 20 kilos over 50 kilometres in less than one hour.

The first competition will be this fall, and involve a few components: the drones need to do precision take-off and landing with a remote, they need to navigate without GPS, and they need to do a sense-and-avoid run where they fly a kilometer and back, avoiding balloons in the process. The materials involved need to cost less than $500, and while your team doesn’t need to be based in Africa, you must collaborate with an African lab or school. This is simply the first challenge; since the stated goal is 2020, there will be future iterations.

We talk a lot about the context of drones in American life — and that’s only logical, because they haven’t become widespread yet and it currently signals a crazy, futuristic movie-type future — but if you think about it all logically, Africa is the place where it probably makes the most sense. Although Africa has had a tormented, unsteady history in many regards, there’s a legitimate chance that it will become the center of the world in the next 500-1,000 years — based on the simple ebb-and-flow of civilizations that we’ve seen everywhere except China for the past 2,000+ years. Companies are semi-rushing into Africa right now, but there are wide swaths with too much violence and disease, sanitation issues and lack of connectivity. Drones could solve at least two of those issues if handled properly. Facebook gets it (although they’re doing it for the $$$, ultimately). You could keep an eye on endangered species. It could be “the next development game changer.”

Ted Bauer