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Getting drones to deliver for global development

ImpactAlpha, July 18 – Investors from TPG Growth’s Rise Fund to Singapores’ Temasak piled into the recent $190 million investment round of Zipline, a fleet of autonomous drones improving emergency medical care in frontline clinics in sub-Saharan Africa. The tech unicorn, while highlighting the vast potential of drones in development settings where roads and infrastructure are lacking, has largely been an anomaly in its ability to scale and attract capital.

Most drone projects have lingered in the pilot stage. The key to moving from pilot to scale to impact, writes Catherine Cheney of Devex, “is improving the reliability and lowering the cost of the technology while also coordinating rather than duplicating efforts.”

In a new report, “Drones for Development,” Devex surveys the state of use of unmanned aerial vehicles in global development today and identifies ways to fulfill their potential for impact. Among the insights:

  • Pilots, pilots, pilots. Drones have been used to fight the Zika virus in Brazil, deliver vaccines in Vanuatu, and blood in Malawi. But few projects have grown beyond the pilot stage. Only four of 27 drone projects for global health identified by the Interagency Supply Chain Group have achieved sustained operations. The outlier: Zipline, which has reached national scale in Rwanda and is expanding into Ghana and the U.S. (See, “How Zipline raised $190 million to build a global drone logistics network”)
  • Cost competitive. Unmanned aerial vehicles are often critiqued for diverting resources from basic needs such as roads, healthcare or electricity. Most drones are least three years away from being cost-competitive with optimally routed motorcycles, according to one analysis. Increasing flight frequency by using drones across multiple applications, or focusing on denser population areas, can help defray costs. 
  • Local experts. Most drone companies are still only selling technology. Donors and international nonprofits need people to operate the drones and other on the ground expertise. One solution: Tapping local expertise. Flying Labs, for example, is building a global network of local drone experts. 
  • Democratizing airspace. “It used to be only wealthy governments or corporations could collect data from the sky or move goods through the sky,” says Timothy Reuter of World Economic Forum. “Now you’re empowering both less wealthy governments and new entrepreneurs to take advantage of the sky as a resource.”

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