In delivery drones, scrappy can beat costly

The Frankenstein drone by Peru Flying Labs. Photo by: WeRobotics

A drone named Frankenstein may hold important lessons for the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, in humanitarian aid, development or environmental conservation.

With rubber bands and duct tape holding its foam parts together, “Frankie,” as the drone is called, recently outperformed a far costlier prototype to deliver anti-venom and blood samples in fridge packs to a remote village in Peru, according to a report released by WeRobotics today and provided in advance to Devex. 

The test flights demonstrate how simple technologies may be better suited to many development delivery tasks. They also reveal how the global development community can play a role in conducting independent monitoring for an emerging industry that experts say is in need of greater transparency. The results of these test flights were self-reported.

Peru Flying Labs repurposed a $3,000 fixed wing mapping drone for the cargo delivery mission, replacing its camera with the medical payload, anti-venom in one flight and blood in the other. The result, Frankie, made the delivery from the town of Contamana to the remote village of Pampa Hermosa in the Amazon Rainforest, a trip that takes six hours by riverboat.

The success followed three days of troubleshooting on a $40,000 drone, which the team couldn’t get to stay in the air for more than 30 seconds. That device, referred to in the report as Drone A, was made by an undisclosed American drone startup company. The device itself cost $30,000 while the ground station and batteries came to another $10,000.

“These very expensive, very sophisticated cargo drones are not right for the use cases we’re interested in,” Patrick Meier — executive director and cofounder of WeRobotics, which helped launch the Peru Flying Labs team in the Amazon Rainforest — told Devex. “We’re talking about appropriate technology, which means low cost, locally maintained, locally operated platforms.”

The test flights, conducted from Dec. 12 to 21 in 2016, reveal what WeRobotics means by “appropriate robotics solutions.” For the cost of one Drone A platform — a hybrid VTOL drone that can take off and land vertically like a helicopter — the organization could have purchased 11 of the E384 model, a fixed wing drone that is made for mapping.

As American drone companies work to improve their technology and embrace new opportunities — such as a new humanitarian drone testing corridor in Africa — these test flights point to the potential for locally developed solutions.

In Feb. and May 2017, WeRobotics will conduct further test flights in Peru in partnership with Peru Flying Labs. The organization will also continue to explore affordable solutions for cargo drone deliveries in other markets, including the Philippines.

With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, WeRobots has created Flying Labs in Peru, Tanzania and Nepal. Each of them are run by local coordinators who identify priorities.

“I’m taking a bottom-up approach,” said Peru Flying Labs’ coordinator Juan Bergelund, the founder of UAV del Peru. He works with the Ministry of Health, which along with the Peruvian Civil Aviation Authority provided written permission for the flight tests. Bergelund and Meier co-authored the report.

Bergelund is working to become the solution provider for a national network of medical drone deliveries and he said he believes it is only a matter of time.

“It is a great idea but it has to be affordable and practical,” Peru’s Minister of Health Patricia Garcia told Devex of drones for medical delivery.

Bergelund has been working with regional health centers and local doctors, who joined for the test flights. He said he is in touch with the vice minister of health.

“It’s important for them not to be against us, but they don’t necessarily have to be for us,” he said of the Ministry of Health.

The regions of Peru each have decisionmaking authority that could allow for drones to respond to needs ranging from snakes to rains to earthquakes, he said.

Still, there is a need to bring the price points down.

“The cargo drone space is still very new, and the major platforms in this space for the most part are still prototypes,” Meier told Devex. The simpler the drones, the easier the repairs — by, for example, local motorcycle mechanics — he added.

Another problem with this emerging industry is that much of the information is proprietary, Meier said. The American startup, which he would not name, carried out their initial tests of the $40,000 Drone A at a secret location. WeRobotics and their local partners were not allowed to approach, photograph or film.

As Silicon Valley companies such as Zipline and Matternet raise tens of millions of dollars to bring UAVs to developing countries, the global development community could find a new role conducting independent monitoring and evaluation of these projects so that they do not go self reported.

“Even if we can make the business case for the use of this technology, let’s see whether that has any meaningful impact,” Meier said.

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About the author

  • Cheney catherine%2520%25281%2529

    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.