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How drones are aiding in international development

Innovative new uses are improving farming, logistics, healthcare, and more

How drones are aiding in international development
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When many people think of international development, their thoughts tend to land on traditional efforts like fundraising and community service rather than the power of cutting-edge technology, like drones. While advocacy and community service remain crucially important, drones can be a force for innovation in international development. Since the mid-2010s, they have been used in parts of Africa to deliver life-saving blood and medical supplies. More recently, drone infrastructure built for blood delivery has been repurposed to battle COVID-19 with the delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE) and vaccines. Deloitte explored these and other examples in the report Medicine from the Sky: Lessons from Drones in Africa, written in collaboration with the World Economic Forum. But the report highlights just a preview of possible international development uses for this technology. Below, we explore six innovative cases for drones in the international development context.

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1. Maximize utility with multipurpose flights

Recent repurposing of blood delivery drones for COVID-19 applications demonstrates the versatility of the infrastructure created in Africa. Switching from blood delivery to other medical delivery is a logical next step, but what about taking the idea further by using existing drone networks for multiple purposes? Just as commercial airliners deliver cargo in addition to passengers, drones can be used to conduct missions for multiple users in the same flight. To illustrate, a drone delivering medical supplies could also be equipped with a sensor to obtain agricultural data from farms the drone passes en route, serving two different users at once. Multipurpose flights can help maximize the utility of the drone network as well as reducing operating costs.

2. Obtain climate data to conserve resources in agriculture

Water and other natural resources are scarce in some parts of the world. Drones with remote-sensing technologies can obtain precise climate and ground data, helping enhance agricultural productivity and conserve water. All too often, farmers in developing nations rely on national or global data to determine their water needs, which leads to waste when the data is inaccurate. However, farmers can conserve water if they know exactly how much is needed to feed their crops. Drones with remote sensing technologies are already used to assess crop conditions and local climate to determine the near exact amount of water needed so that farmers can develop custom irrigation plans that use the right amount of water to keep crops healthy without wasting this precious resource.

3. Prevent “false journeys” in transportation and logistics

Challenging terrain, poorly kept roads, and weather considerations can turn many trips into “false journeys”: ones that cannot reach their destination. For example, a truck carrying cargo could set out on an all-day drive to deliver goods. If halfway through the trip, the truck encounters an unusable road due to weather damage, the truck may have to turn around and drive for hours to reroute to its destination, wasting time and fuel. Drones could be used to mitigate this situation by scouting the route beforehand for any hidden challenges, which would improve traveler safety and save fuel and time.

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4. Curtail overfishing

Over the last several years, overfishing has become a problem, with the United Nations declaring in 2018 that the global rate of fishing is unsustainable.1 However, fish are a key source of nutrition globally; the World Wildlife Foundation estimates that 3 billion people2 rely on fish as their primary source of protein. If a fishing vessel returns to the same location routinely to fish, overfishing is bound to occur. Drones could be used to curtail overfishing by monitoring both the location of fishing vessels and signs of marine populations. Regulators can then use that data to enforce protocols and help commercial fishers avoid parts of the ocean that are overfished, allowing those populations to replenish.

5. Create clinic-to-clinic delivery networks

Typically, when blood or other medical payload is flown by drone it is a one-way delivery, with the drone returning empty to a central hub. What should be explored next is using drones to fly directly between medical facilities. This would unlock uses such as medical-sample testing. For example, a remote clinic may not have the same lab capabilities as a larger, local hospital, but the clinic may be the most convenient place to draw blood. With a point-to-point drone delivery network, the remote clinic could fly samples to a hospital with more robust medical offerings for testing and get results rapidly. This would enable the decentralization of testing facilities while still providing doctors and patients with quick results.

6. Provide prompt first aid

In a health emergency, it is crucial to get patients the right care as fast as possible. These are situations where a drone could provide a patient with immediate care. For instance, imagine someone working in a remote area is bit by a poisonous snake that requires serum for treatment. With emergency medical services augmented by drones, a drone could be deployed to quickly fly the right serum for the snakebite to the patient at their exact location.

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These examples show that the early progress of drones in international development is not the end, and, with some key innovations, drones can be a force for good across the globe. Check out the report, Medicine from the Sky: Lessons from Drones in Africa, to learn more.

Peter Liu is a managing director with Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Government & Public Services practice. Wade Warren is a specialist executive with Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Government & Public Services practice and former Acting Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Christine Griffin is a senior consultant with Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Government & Public Services practice. You can read Deloitte’s full report, “Saving Lives from the Sky with Humanitarian Drones in Africa,” here. If you would like to learn more about Deloitte’s Government & Public Services (GPS) practice, please visit our career opportunities page.

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Sources: 1. Reuters; 2. WWF.
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