What do hungry consumers and critically injured patients have in common? Drones are bringing them what they need most. While in the United States a recent partnership between Uber and McDonalds has demonstrated the possibility of delivering your next order to the comfort of your front door, Africa is moving beyond fast food pilot projects and scaling lifesaving delivery of goods.
Beyond Blood and Burgers
Whether providing lifesaving blood, vaccines, or medicines, it is the efforts to expand what’s possible through government policy innovation that are making a real difference. One particularly positive outcome is how youth, and specifically women, are employed through careers in drone design, manufacturing, and operations. While the lifesaving potential of drones captures our attention, it may be the downstream effects of an inclusive aviation industry that drives the greatest good.
As new industries develop to address unmet global challenges, we have an opportunity to alleviate social challenges entrenched in decades of systemic barriers. The integration of advanced technologies inspire and cultivate economic opportunity. If that opportunity can be seized by communities that have traditionally been unable to participate, it makes possible benefits that may be even larger than the direct benefit from the deployment of technologies themselves.
Aviation Gender Gap
Traditionally, the aviation industry has been one of the most male dominated industries at all levels. According to the most recent data from the United States, just 6.6% of all pilots are female, and only 3% in non-pilot, aviation careers.
Systemic challenges continue to reinforce a bias toward male participation in the aviation industry worldwide. While diminishing from the 1960s when the commercial airline fleet consisted of over 80% former military pilots, still roughly 35% of all commercial pilots began their career in the military where female pilots represent roughly 6% of all pilots. Globally, the gender gap for commercial pilots is even worse; The International Society of Women Airline Pilots recently reported only 5.2% of all commercial pilots are women.
While the drone economy is “more tech than aviation,” and considering the bad reputation of the tech industry more broadly, drone companies do show signs that by enabling a new generation of female entrepreneurs the industry can disrupt the failings of the male dominated aerospace community.
Drones Deliver Diversity and Opportunity
Drones have proven to be a technology that enables greater participation in aviation globally. Though less than 5% of all CEOs in the commercial aviation industry are women, the drone industry, though in its infancy and still with gender bias to overcome, has already begun to see better parity.
Organizations like Women and Drones, Women of Commercial Drones, and WeRobotics have begun highlighting the important contributions of, and leadership by, women in aerospace while developing STEM focused education that develop the workforce pipeline for autonomous entrepreneurs. Though the overall participation of women in drone related fields is estimated to be on par with the more established aviation industry at roughly 5%, these organizations and others are trying to create a more inclusive sky and innovative companies finding success are focusing on gender balance in their workforce.
What’s even more promising is that diversity exists within industry leading firms. Take a look at Zipline, a global leader in drone delivery, which operates in Africa. In Ghana, over 50% Zipline’s team are women. Many of these drone innovators are college graduates who also received training at the “Zipline Academy” in Rwanda where they learn firsthand what it takes to manage and execute a vital, high technology service.
Initially in Rwanda and more recently in Ghana the company was highlighted this week at the World Economic Forum’s Summit on Africa in Cape Town, South Africa. Conor French, Zipline’s General Counsel, explained that Zipline is able to provide “instant access to urgent medicines” via drone delivery services to over 13,000,000 people and boasts over 18,000 life-saving deliveries, with roughly one-third considered emergency or just in time delivery. By investing in the government support needed to enable an entirely new industry at scale, private industry partners have brought real impact on the ground—all while turning the traditional aviation paradigm of male dominance on its head while saving lives.
Barriers to Drone Use
Despite the promise of drones presented in their use and their economic opportunities many countries are slow to fully realize their potential. A lack of awareness as to what these systems can be used for, how they are saving lives or protecting the environment persists across industries and ministries. Even when decisions makers fully recognize the benefits drones may provide, the mechanisms to support and accelerate their adoption are still limited. What’s needed are policies that embrace innovation, create an environment of inclusion, and promote domestic ecosystems for deployment.
However, there is progress being made.
Announced this week was the next location for the African Drone Forum, formerly the Lake Victoria Challenge, in Rwanda. The African Drone Forum provides an example of how governments can embrace drone technologies to develop the supportive policies needed for greater youth and female inclusion. As Riccardo Puliti, the World Bank’s Global Director, Energy and Extractive Industries and Regional Director, Africa, Infrastructure, explains, “The African Drone Forum will open and test the minds of engineers, regulators, entrepreneurs and investors. The flying competitions will promote new industries and services, harness data for delivery and resilience, create activity hubs and opportunities to leapfrog technologies, and develop skill sets for 21st century jobs in the region and beyond… This will promote the skies above Africa as a valuable resource and technologies to help build sustainable infrastructure.”
What matters today is that government support innovative approaches to drone operations. As the Honorable Paula Ingabire, Minister of ICT and Innovation, Rwanda explained this week, “Our interest and excitement around hosting the Africa Drone Forum is twofold… our intention and deliberate focus on how we leverage emerging technologies in responding to our social economic development challenges… and looking at the use of unmanned vehicles which is something the government of Rwanda has been very active in by developing performance-based regulations of drones.”
With institutions across the continent developing talented, skilled, and well-educated graduates, new opportunities are needed to put them to work in successful future oriented careers. It is not always easy for governments to allocate resources to an untried and untested technology, and the initial reaction is often to ban it. While enabling these technologies is not always easy, the benefits and opportunity for systemic change make the effort worthwhile. With drones, it may just be possible that those future oriented, high tech and high paying careers will manifest with the right mix of government leadership and industrial innovation.