Cloudline: Long endurance autonomous airships for medical supply delivery

UNICEF Innovation Fund Cohort: Drones

Spencer Horne
© Cloudline Africa The team at Cloudline Africa test their autonomous airship
© Cloudline Africa
06 December 2019

For most of us who live in cities today, every possible need is within a short trip of our current location; be it food, clothing or even medical care. But that is not the case for more than 1 billion people worldwide who lack direct access to an all-weather road. To those communities, essential supplies and services may be days away. Lack of reliable logistic access results in lives lost and, in many cases, exorbitant costs for goods and services we take for granted in the physically connected world. 

Cloudline is building autonomous airships to take drone delivery into remote areas, with greater payloads and longer range than possible using conventional drones. We have seen the tremendous positive impact of on-demand emergency deliveries of medicine and blood. These services have saved countless lives and bridged an infrastructural gap that has existed for many decades in the world’s poorest regions. At a time when it costs more than two million dollars to build a kilometre of new paved road, large payload delivery drones allow us to reach communities that do not have the density to make roads viable, with the added benefit of a much smaller environmental footprint.

 Cloudline aims to improve the lives of children by delivering necessities for their lives and facilitating trade that enables their livelihood

Cloudline Africa
A baby lies in her mother's arms at Mkoko Village Clinic in Phalombe, Malawi.
©UNICEF/UN0226878/ChikondiMalawi
A baby lies in her mother's arms at Mkoko Village Clinic in Phalombe, Malawi.

FRONTIER TECHNOLOGY 

Autonomous airships are the marathoners of the drone world. Whereas the industry has successfully deployed many “sprinting” drones, that may be deployed on-demand, quickly and conveniently, to carry small high value payloads; the distance over which these drones are able to operate has remained a big barrier to expanding their deployment over more uses cases. 

With our target of over 200km in range, autonomous airships are able to perform a different role, in delivering scheduled, just-in-time packaged cargo; effectively extending existing logistics networks to reach even the furthest communities. We aim to address this “last-mile” problem as it manifests for many as a “last-100-mile” problem. We acknowledge that the problem hits both ways, keeping essential goods and services out, whilst making the export of local produce and products to regional, national and international markets very expensive. By offering cargo carriage on the return journey, we aim to spur economic activity in places that have historically been denied by lack of access to markets.

Lighter-than-air solutions were once rendered obsolete by the invention of the aeroplane. They simply could not compete on speed and convenience. To be viable they were large and unwieldy, making them costly to build and maintain. Since they were effectively phased out of the mainstream nearly 100 years ago, they have not had all of the modern upgrades that other vehicles had; the upgrades that we aim to bring. Today modern materials mean that our airships don’t need to be made of cow intestines. The advent of electronics and drone control software and hardware means that we are able to make them smaller, nimbler and cheaper than ever before. They are even well-suited to running on just solar power, a feature that is crucial as we look to create sustainable supply chains from day one.
 

ON BEING OPEN SOURCE 

The support of UNICEF’s Innovation Fund investment will allow us to bring a minimum viable product to market, on which we can raise additional funding and ultimately expand our reach and impact to the global scale. It is for exactly that reach and impact, that we support an open-source model for this technology; so that passionate people, wherever they are in the world, may contribute toward a solution with their perspectives and skills. It is under an open source model that impact may be scaled well beyond the limitations of our own initial growth rate. 

Team Cloudline Africa
Cloudline Africa
Team Cloudline Africa

TEAM 

Our team is made up of a group of South African engineers, who have been privileged enough to know what seamless logistics looks like in a developed setting, while being close enough to places where that access is near non-existent. We bring our multidisciplinary knowledge of mechanical and electronics engineering, as well as machine learning to a problem that requires development on a number of fronts. 

The support of UNICEF’s Venture Fund investment will allow us to bring a minimum viable product to market, on which we can raise additional funding and ultimately expand our reach and impact to the global scale. It is for exactly that reach and impact, that we support an open-source model for this technology; so that passionate people, wherever they are in the world, may contribute toward a solution with their perspectives and skills. 

 

WAY AHEAD

It excites us equally to be part of a cohort of startups working toward the common goals of using drone technology to positively impact people’s lives. By working on a problem greater than ourselves, as part of a community greater than ourselves, in a spirit of cooperation, we stack the odds in our favour of making a lasting impact on the world. 

Onward and upward!