Emerging markets are well-known for their use of leapfrogging, or the use of new technologies to upend established paradigms of development. For example, instead of building financial institutions (and their complicated legal structures) entirely from scratch, Kenyans rely heavily on mobile money services like M-Pesa.
Today, leapfrogging is present in nearly every developing nation to some extent. The latest technology to assist in the process is that of drones. Today, many emerging economies use these devices for a huge range of lifesaving applications, from delivering healthcare to search and rescue in rugged terrain.
Though drones have long been known as weapons of war, in recent years, their reputation has undergone a paradigm shift. While military uses remain, drones are seeing their roles diversify dramatically.
Sales are stronger than ever
One reason for this might be the explosion in civilian sales. Today, the largest drone producer is Dajiang Innovations, more popularly known as DJI. The company, founded and based in China, has a stranglehold on the civilian drone market, with a $10 billion valuation and accounting for some 70 percent of all sales. Thanks to its business model of offering better products at cheaper price points, global sales of DJI products grew 60 percent in 2016 to 2.2 million.
All this is to say that drones are cheaper and more available than ever. Though DJI isn’t the sole producer of drones (other major manufacturers include chip producer Ambarella, aerospace companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and even camera maker GoPro), its sales are significantly larger. Thus, where DJI goes, so does the rest of the industry.
And increasingly, DJI is shifting towards more diverse uses. After a US government decision to discontinue use of DJI products, the company is pivoting towards commercial applications, away from solely recreational ones. As The Economist points out, it helps that drones, both those made by DJI as well as other companies, are arguably more advanced than similarly sized, more expensive military devices. In fact, most drones require little or no modification to switch from individual to commercial use, as their specs (the ability to detect obstacles, maintain position in light winds, and even respond to hand gestures) allow them to switch roles seamlessly.
Drones are simply the best choice
The advantages of drones are legion, as well. The World Bank created a handy primer that outlines the upsides of drones, such as lower operational risk to workers, residents, and infrastructure; faster implementation of projects; and plentiful, accurate data. These qualities are a boon for emerging markets, as a cheap, reliable aerial vehicle is tailor-made for work in such challenging conditions. By nature, these nations don’t have well-paved roads, reliable transport, or solid infrastructure; instead, most of these features are often a work in progress.
But beyond just pure cost concerns, drones also offer a host of other benefits. Such conditions are perfect for leapfrogging, and this is where drones come in.
How do emerging markets use drones?
The field of logistics makes up a large percentage of drone uses. For instance, drones could deliver parcels to remote, far-flung areas–places where delivery men have difficulty accessing, whether due to broken down roads or other geographical obstacles. This would be especially helpful in markets like China, where the rising middle class includes a significant population living in far-flung towns and villages. Companies could ship packages cheaply (e-retail CEO Richard Liu estimates that this would lower costs by 70 percent).
But drone delivery isn’t only for consumer goods. Instead, drones can also bring necessities (such as specialized medicines) to isolated areas. Nations like the Philippines, which consists of over 7,000 islands, has expressed interest in drones filling several key medical roles and has studied the procedures at length. And they’re not alone, either; drones have delivered birth control supplies in rural Ghana, and medical provisions in nations like Papua New Guinea and Tanzania.
But the medical uses of drones go far beyond simply delivering vital prescriptions. Instead, a key gap in emerging markets is the lack of reliable laboratory testing for infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. In terms of medical testing, most alternatives are far more expensive: this includes other modes of transportation like cars and helicopters or the price of setting up a clinic in a remote area.
As a result, physical samples (blood, skin cells, or other tissue) can be transported by drones. Even though certain tests can be completed remotely (results can be transmitted over wireless networks), samples are still necessary for certain benchmarks. Such projects have also been pioneered in Rwanda, an up-and-coming African nation that, despite its economic and technological potential, must still contend with serious physical challenges such as rugged terrain and a lack of physical infrastructure.
Beyond lifesaving applications, drones also have serious profit potential. From the air, drones can gather a variety of important data; they can map out arduous terrain (and thus negate the need to send a human expedition) or assist agricultural efforts by assessing factors like moisture levels. Perhaps in recognition of this, several Asian governments have streamlined drone permit processes–and as a result, drone services companies have taken off. Today, drones can perform a wide variety of tasks, from scanning solar panels for functionality to 3D mapping land for prospective buyers.
Drones aren’t the future; instead, they’re already here. For emerging markets as well, drones are a key development tool: they are a fraction of the price of larger, more complex craft like helicopters, easily used, and highly versatile. Within a few years, it’s easy to imagine a drone-powered society, built on the backs of these ubiquitous, highly useful devices.