The Flying Donkey Challenge


France’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), Afrotech Project and the Swiss National Centre of Competence for Research in Robotics (NCCR), have sponsored a project aimed at using drones as a means of transport in Africa.

The project, called the Flying Donkey Challenge, was presented by Jonathan Ledgard – former African correspondent for the British business weekly The Economist – during the Unmanned Cargo Aircraft Conference last month in the Netherlands. The idea is inspired by the DARPA Grand Challenge, which consists of offering a multi-million dollar prize to a team able to make a driverless car perform a long distance run in a challenging environment (either desert or urban) in a minimum amount of time.

In the case of Ledgard, this a race of cargo robots with a maximum takeoff weight of 60kg flying around Mount Kenya in under 24 hours, delivering and collecting 20kg payloads along the way. That is eventually where the analogy with the donkey comes from: a humble, common and reliable beast of burden serving human communities. Why Africa? Because that’s where Ledgard thinks the needs for transport and logistical infrastructure will be more pressing in the years to come, due to the rise in demography and emerging economics. And also because he feels there is a genuine curiosity and critical requirement for disruptive technologies on the continent.

Why Kenya? Because Ledgard knows the country well, and that’s where civil and military aviation authorities were ready to give the necessary waivers for such an unorthodox initiative. “The Flying Donkey Challenge will contribute to solving some of the engineering, design, safety, legal and business issues needed to gain public acceptance of autonomous flight and to create a new, and sustainable, transportation infrastructure,” says Team Director Simon Johnson from EPFL.

At the same time – still in Switzerland – the Solar Impulse2 project is preparing to fly around the globe in March 2015, powered only by sunlight. Although the spectacular 72 m-wide and ultra-light (2.3t) aircraft already performed a more than 24hrs flight in 2013, the 5-day/5-night trip remains a “Grand Challenge” in its own way… But unlike DARPA’s endeavour, it is not ultimately meant to deter anyone from doing anything by threatening to kill people or destroy properties. Indeed, the Flying Donkey’s philosophy is focused on low-tech and day-to-day use for African populations, while Solar Impulse is focusing on leading-edge technologies and advanced materials in order to push the limits of endurance and energy efficiency. However, both projects clearly demonstrate that aerospace research can be innovative, pragmatic, fun, useful, socially responsible, ethical, durable, and simultaneously eco and Humanfriendly.

Republished with permission from ADIT – The Bulletin.