A network of 'droneports' could allow cargo drones to deliver urgent and valuable supplies to remote areas across Africa, according to a leading architect.
Lord Foster has unveiled designs for low-cost airports for UAVs that would only require brick-press machinery to be delivered to a site to allow locals to construct the simple structure using locally sourced materials such as clay for bricks and boulders for the foundation.
This would then act as a hub for two parallel cargo networks of drones that can carry supplies over 100km: a Redline using smaller drones for medical and emergency supplies, and a commercial Blueline that would transport larger payloads such as spare parts, electronics and e-commerce deliveries.
The project is a collaboration between the Norman Foster Foundation, Foster + Partners, of which Lord Foster is chairman and founder, and Redline partners led by the Afrotech lab at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).
Just a third of Africans live within two kilometres of an all-season road, and with Africa's population set to double to 2.2 billion by 2050 an "infrastructural leap" is essential to meet the continent's needs, according to Foster + Partners.
Lord Foster said: "Africa is a continent where the gap between the population and infrastructural growth is increasing exponentially. The dearth of terrestrial infrastructure has a direct impact on the ability to deliver life-giving supplies, indeed where something as basic as blood is not always available for timely treatment.
"We require immediate bold, radical solutions to address this issue. The Droneport project is about doing more with less, capitalising on the recent advancements in drone technology - something that is usually associated with war and hostilities - to make an immediate life-saving impact in Africa.
A pilot project in Rwanda is scheduled to begin in 2016 , with three buildings due to be completed by 2020 to enable a network that can reach 44 per cent of Rwanda. Subsequent phases of the project could see more than 40 droneports across Rwanda, and the country's central location could allow easier expansion to neighbouring countries such as Congo.
"Rwanda's challenging geographical and social landscape makes it an ideal testbed for the Droneport project," said Lord Foster. "This project can have massive impact through the century and save lives immediately."
The droneports have been designed to allow for safe landing of quiet drones in a densely packed area, and they will include a health clinic, a digital fabrication shop, a post and courier room and an e-commerce trading hub.
Multiple vaults can also link together to form flexible spaces based on demand and needs of the particular place, and the evolution of drone technology. The droneports will also be manufacturing centres for drones, generating employment opportunities for the local population.
Jonathan Ledgard, founder of Redline, said: "It is inevitable on a crowded planet, with limited resources, that we will make more intensive use of our sky, using flying robots to move goods faster, cheaper, and more accurately than ever before.
"But it is not inevitable that these craft or their landing sites will be engineered to be tough and cheap enough to serve poorer communities who can make most use of them. Droneport is an attempt to make that happen, and to improve health and economic outcomes in Africa and beyond.
"We are proud to have Norman Foster an architect with extensive personal experience of flying as our partner on this project."