Lord Norman Foster, the British architect who has built iconic buildings like the Gherkin in London, is building the world’s first “droneports” in Rwanda.
The goal is to transport urgent medical supplies and electronic parts to remote parts of the East African country via unmanned flying vehicles or drones.
“There will be about 2.2 billion people in Africa by 2050, or 1 in 4 inhabitants of the planet will be African. How can their infrastructure even think about keeping up with this expansion?” Lord Foster told the Telegraph.
The solution is clear: cargo drone routes have value wherever roads are limited. “Only a third of Africans live within 2km of an all-season road,” Lord Foster said. There are currently no continental motorways, almost no tunnels, and not enough bridges that can reach people living in far-flung areas of the continent.
The architecture firm Foster + Partners are working with Lausanne-based university École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and its associated initiative Afrotech on the project, which includes three separate droneports and is expected to be built within four years.
“[Afrotech director] Jonathan Ledgard approached me and said you’ve built the biggest airport in the world, now how do you feel about doing the smallest one?” Lord Foster said.
Each droneport will operate two parallel networks of drones, which are being designed by engineers at Afrotech/EPFL and Imperial College London.
The Redline drones will have a wingspan of 3m and can deliver medical and emergency supplies weighing up to 10 kilograms, such as 20 adult blood transfusions or vaccines and drugs.
The commercial Blueline drones can deliver heavier equipment, electronics and e-commerce items weighing up to 100 kilograms.
“For example, an entire village can be deprived of water because a vital component of a pump has broken down,” Lord Foster says. “The drone can deliver in 1/12th of the time that it would take a Land Rover to get through.”
The droneports will be designed as a row of vaulted brick structures and will host a health clinic, a digital fabrication shop to make spare drone parts, a post and courier room, and an e-commerce trading hub.
It is estimated that drones flying from the port will be able to cover 44 per cent of Rwanda.
Rwanda’s challenging geographical landscape makes it an ideal test-bed for the pilot project, but it won’t just stop there.
Lord Foster says he sees the potential for droneports to become as commonplace as petrol stations, and there are plans to expand the scheme across Rwanda and into neighbouring countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“This project can have massive impact through the century and save lives immediately,” he said.
The Droneport project is an evolution of Foster + Partners’ airport schemes in Mexico City, Jordan and Beijing, as well as a project to build a habitation on the Moon. The lunar project, in association with the European Space Agency, used a basic inflatable framework and sourced raw materials, like moondust, locally - very similar to the principles behind the droneports.
Lord Foster said, “What started as the world’s smallest airport could become bigger than the biggest airport, in terms of sheer scale and impact.”