Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Roads: Drones in International Development

By Aaron Milner


Poor infrastructure and weak logistics limit development effectiveness.  Governments invested over $130 billion in official development assistance (ODA) into the world’s poorest countries in 2015, but billions of people still lack access to food, water, healthcare, internet, and electricity.  Traditional development often cannot deliver immediate results to communities, tax payers, and investors.  Developing countries plagued by financial and political instability wait in limbo for long-term development project completion to provide basic public goods.  New technology, however, expedites development delivery.  Private companies are experimenting with technological alternatives to traditional infrastructure—such as drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—to reach more people for less money.  Beyond expense, drones are a flexible development tool.  The same network that patrols South Africa for poachers can track drought patterns.  Whereas an expensive road is permanent to one location, drones can cover vast geographies in a short time to achieve diverse goals.

This post explores how cost-effective and creative technology—specifically drones—could solve large-scale issues and jump start progress in developing countries.  A survey of the various companies using drones leads into an analysis that explores the question:  Do developing countries need to undertake expansive infrastructure projects to reach their initial goals?


Photo courtesy of Zipline

Traditional Development Challenges

Roads, bridges, delivery trucks, and airplanes are logistically imperative, but they are often prohibitively expensive.  The Congressional Research Service stated in April 2016 that “developing countries, historically, have had difficulty maintaining [infrastructure] due to lack of funds for physical upkeep or lack of trained technical personnel for regular maintenance.” For example, in 2012 Georgia sacrificed road quality to meet fixed time frames resulting in defects in five of 11 sections of the Samtskhe-Javakheti Roads Rehabilitation project. In 2007, Mozambique reduced rural water drilling from 600 wells to 300 due to insufficient construction allocations. Traditional development programs have a lifespan defined by limited funds or elected officials, and infrastructure projects can be abandoned when money or patience runs out.  That instability is compounded by natural disasters, corruption, and unreliable funding streams in developing countries.  These roadblocks threaten traditional long-term infrastructure models which require regular upkeep by governments or companies.

How Drones Can Address These Challenges

New technology minimizes the time and cost with which vital goods and services can be delivered to developing countries.  A study by Matternet—a leader in autonomous drone transportation—found that an “entire 140 kilometer [area] could be connected by a drone network for $900,000” while “the cost to build a two kilometer winding road is millions of dollars.”  While completing these deliveries or surveys, drones can also collect and transmit data on project status, weather, and their surroundings.  The data gap in development is another challenge that limits efficiency but drones can autonomously collect diverse data across expansive geographies.

The private sector—mainly startups—have adopted drones as a more cost effective and faster alternative to long-term and expensive infrastructure or technology. A few creative actors already use drones to address the following challenges in developing countries:

  • Logistical Support:

Drones can be used to deliver medical supplies, food, water, and equipment to rural and urban areas with limited transportation infrastructure.  Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) partnered with Matternet to collect and transport Tuberculosis samples in Papua New Guinea.  MSF said a traditional mission was “impossible, because the roads are very bad, where they exist, and in the rainy season [the roads are] completely blocked…even if you only use one or two UAVs a day, you can pick up ten different samples from ten different points.  When you go by land, it is really hard just to get from A to B.”

Zipline—another leading startup—will deliver blood donations and samples to twenty hospitals and health centers across Rwanda starting this summer.  Zipline’s drones can make 50 to 150 deliveries a day; while the company operates solely in Rwanda now, stable access to medical supplies is new for a continent where only one third of residents live within two kilometers of a road able to support transportation year-round.

If roads do exist in developing countries, they are often poor quality—unpaved, dangerous, or without upkeep.  Dr. Timothy Amukele, a professor at Johns Hopkins partnering with disaster preparedness and response NGO Field Innovation Team and drone-firm Flirtey, said that bumpy roads cause “vibrations [which] can ruin [a] sample” of blood.  Flirtey completed the first ever ship-to-shore drone delivery in June, containing medical supplies.

  • Mapping and Monitoring:

Developing countries are often hit hardest by drought, natural disasters, and climate change.  The United States, Canada, Europe, and some Asian countries use satellites to track storms and geographic shifts, but many developing countries’ limited resources prevent similar research.  A drone network system offers an economical, accurate, and high quality mapping and monitoring alternative to satellites.

EU governments monitor the farms they subsidize by satellite.  In 2010, 70 percent of photos of EU-subsidized farms were taken by satellite.  But drones may be better suited for evaluating agriculture since they can fly under clouds, mountain shadows do not affect their photos, and they can show more angles than satellites.  Farmers can fly drones over their crops for precision agriculture with more efficient fertilization and watering patterns. That kind of monitoring by a manned aircraft costs $1,000 an hour, but drones themselves cost that much to purchase.

Drones offer another possibility for tracking the impact of industrialization and deforestation on climate change.  NASA is launching a drone system to monitor and measure the climate in Greenland.  The radar-equipped UAVs will measure and map ice sheet thickness and sea level change with capability for centimeter-scale resolution.

Other applications allow humans to go where they usually could not.  In a natural disaster, a drone system with infrared cameras can uncover survivors from heat signatures of bodies and show the landscape impact of the disaster. In 2013, the Canadian Mounties used an infrared camera equipped drone to rescue a man near frozen to death in the woods before helicopters with night vision were able to do so.  Drones in South Africa have intercepted poachers.  The quiet machines alert neither animals nor humans to their presence, an unexpected application of their military-style reconnaissance for a public good.

cow drone

Photo courtesy Flicker user Lima Pix, under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License



 Drones offer a potential alternative to building railroads or other infrastructure-based shipping methods in developing countries.  But since these machines are so new, drone capability is still largely unexplored.  Developing countries seem eager to partner with private groups that can provide quick wins to build on, but it is hard to imagine replacing a road system with drones.  The availability of this cost-effective technology raises the question: Do countries need to be industrialized to the same extent of developed countries to achieve similar gains?

The implications of scaling up drone usage for development applications should be further analyzed to answer that question and provide a recommendation for when a drone should be used over a traditional tool.  Drones could be a cheaper and quicker delivery system, but low-population areas may miss out on other services if roads are not built.  Drones as they are now cannot totally replace infrastructure; rather, they offer a short term supplement or alternative.

A key positive about drones is their flexibility and lower required commitment than traditional development.  For an unstable country, committing to a drone system to deliver medical supplies or samples is a much smaller and less risky investment than building a new railroad.

The positives of drone data collection ability also yield privacy concerns.  Drones are quiet, can take photos or videos from a long distance, and are synonymous with militarized violence because of airstrikes.  UAVs can track survivors of a natural disaster at night but they can also track private citizens at leisure.  Some groups have begun to focus on drone defense.  The Dutch police trained eagles to destroy flying drones.

Another concern for developing countries looking to increase drone technology could be the risk of relying on potentially unstable private start-ups for key development needs.  If drones are a Silicon Valley tech-bubble fad, then they are not a sustainable development solution.

Video courtesy of YouTube user Mashable News, under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License


 The negatives around drones center on this one commonality: the long-term sustainability of the solutions they offer.  These machines are exciting in their flexible application, but they may not be able to serve a whole population for a long period of time as traditional infrastructure can.  Thus developing countries should use drones as a supplement to traditional development and to deliver immediate necessities. Traditional infrastructure, however, cannot be replaced.

The questions around drone usage and legislation are common for a new technology moving quickly into a public sphere defined by bureaucracy and long-term process.  But as drones aim to solve many emergency and short-term problems in development, and they should be adopted by traditional agencies in congruence with the growing public-private partnership trend in aid.

Some critics question whether drones are a scalable tool for international development.  Private businesses and experimental-minded governments demonstrate that they are.  Small startups have gone from testing door-to-door drone operations to delivering blood and medical equipment across Rwanda.  Next, Facebook wants to cover the globe in public internet using a drone network.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service uses drones to feed vaccine covered M&M’s to endangered Black-Footed Ferrets in Montana.  While traditional development is limited to a specific locale, the same drone can be used all over the world for diverse purposes.

Traditional development institutions will continue to fund long-term large-scale projects to deliver infrastructure over years or decades.  But drones and other creative technology should disrupt exhausted development models so that people in need now do not have to wait for traditional models to catch up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s