I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started reading J.M. Ledgard’s little e-book Terra Firma Triptych, but I loved his novel Submergence, and that was enough for me to pick up the new book once I became aware of it (thanks to Slate). It is indeed a triptych, two parts lyrical travel writing about Africa, and one part development economics and drone manifesto–a combination I am fairly sure so other writer has ever attempted.
The writing is characteristically beautiful and heartfelt, and the first two sections do actually lay the groundwork for his discussion of why drones could revolutionize Africa: because the land transport is so terrible. The combination is surprising and the argument convincing; here’s a few samples:
I think about this every day, how things shudder on land in Africa, and how they might slip faster in many directions if only they were pushed into the sky. …
There is no room for techno-utopianism in our bare-fisted future. However, it is important to understand that Africa is coming online just as robotics is coming online. As fast as Africa develops, robotics will develop still faster. Robotics may have negative implications for workers in industrial countries, since tasks such as mopping floors and pushing carts can be performed more cheaply by robots. But in nonindustrial countries, robotics can buy you efficiency that you could not otherwise afford. When it comes to flying robotics, radical breakthroughs are possible. …
The last-mile drone delivery of the kind envisaged by Amazon Prime Air and other developers—a tub of sorbet on a suburban lawn—is a rich-world indulgence that does not make sense in off-grid Africa. What is needed here are cargo drones capable of flying loads over mountain ranges, across the largest lakes, along the seashore, and up isolated estuaries and mangroves, saving lives and creating economic opportunities. … Commercial cargo drone routes will begin to appear in Africa around the year 2020. They will boost economic productivity by flying high-value goods over and over again. The cargo drones will deliver to oil and gas installations, mines, farms, conservancies, churches, hospitals, and government outposts.
Ledgard, a longtime foreign correspondent, thinks African adoption of drone technology will be much like its adoption of mobile-phone technology: extremely rapid, and to some extent compensating for a failure to adopt earlier technologies:
Over the last decade reporting out of Africa, I came to see that the most important story was not a news story at all. It was the mass adoption of mobile phones—a technology capable of reordering time and space in even the poorest communities. It was not inevitable that Africa would have access to cellular communications. Development experts argued that mobile phones would always be too expensive for the poor, and besides, how could an African village that was incapable of looking after a grain silo be expected to look after a cell tower? But the price of mobile phones came tumbling down, and financial deals involving the towers showed that there was cash to build out a system. Even the mobile phone operators could not see the possibilities. They underestimated their own market. For instance, the 2003 business plan for the Kenyan telecom Safaricom was to get to half a million mobile phone subscribers by 2013. These would be traders, priests, taxi drivers, prostitutes—people willing to pay a premium to stay in touch. But Safaricom now has 21 million users. To emphasize: the uptake of the advanced technology was forty-two times greater than expected.