Donkey Drones

A fascinating and inspiring vision for widespread use of drones in Africa.

For many people, drone is an ugly word. It evokes a whining sound, something insectile. The dislike of the drones themselves is understandable. It is a new technology, used mainly for killing or peeping. However, this early negative feeling will begin to shift with positive use cases for drones. Before 2020, drones will take over search functions at sea. Never again will a coastguard helicopter go blindly into the night in search of a sinking ship. Instead, it will be guided by a drone sent ahead of them to locate those in peril. Drones will monitor the wellbeing of crops and animals. They will be used in mapping, counting, policing, and sports. And they will also lift things.

Donkeys will fly roughly at that Eiffel height, in what I call the lower sky. The routes will be geofenced: donkeys will only be able to fly in an air corridor about 200 metres wide and 150 metres high. Busier routes will resemble a high-speed ski gondola, without cables or supporting structures.

Every small town will have its own clean energy donkey station like the one below. The traffic to and from it will mostly be on foot and bikes. The stations will serve as the petrol station of the near future. They will incorporate postal and courier services.

The next decade will be among the most decisive in Africa’s recorded history. Fertility rates in the largest African countries are not falling as fast as had been predicted. At the present rate Africa’s population will be 2.7 billion by 2050, against 228 million in 1950. To have a chance of prosperity, African economies need to quickly turn growth into manufacturing jobs. The problem is that they are growing, but not transforming. Growth rates are much too low. In key economies like Nigeria, Kenya and Senegal manufacturing is dominated by small, informal firms. The poorest countries seem to be de-industrialising. New factories, such as in Ethiopia, will not offset the dumping of cheap finished goods from Asia on African markets.

I have identified 80 kilometre routes in Tanzania, Uganda, and Rwanda. Other prospective countries for early routes are Angola, Zambia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia and South Africa. Routes can be tacked together to extend range. By way of example, it is possible in Rwanda to set up a donkey route from the town of Gitarama over the Nyungwe forest to Lake Kivu and down to the Congolese city of Bukavu. A country as compact and hilly as Rwanda can quickly draw routes across its lower sky and intersect them to most improve health and economic outcomes. My future Africa initiative at EPFL will get the first route up and running. An associated fund based in Africa and Switzerland will push for world-class research on the robotics, engineering, logistics, and law related to donkeys. It will also push for the establishment of an international agency for the lower sky, which will set global norms for the use of donkeys and other civilian drones.

September 30th, 2014

Hemp Based Graphene Alternative

Researchers “cook” hemp bark using their hydrothermal synthesis process, creating a material which can be used to make supercapacitors, one of the promising uses of graphene. Their material however can be produced for a fraction of the cost.

Dr Mitlin’s team took these fibres and recycled them into supercapacitors – energy storage devices which are transforming the way electronics are powered. Conventional batteries store large reservoirs of energy and drip-feed it slowly, whereas supercapacitors can rapidly discharge their entire load.. They are ideal in machines that rely on sharp bursts of power. In electric cars, for example, supercapacitors are used for regenerative braking.. Releasing this torrent requires electrodes with high surface area – one of graphene’s many phenomenal properties.
August 13th, 2014


The Navdy is a HUD (Heads Up Display) for your car and links to your smart phone. Looks like it’s some pretty great technology and it’s an excellent idea for navigation and probably for taking calls. But tweeting?? Texting? Getting notifications? All while driving? That’s idiotic and irresponsible, much less so than doing the same thing right on the phone but still dumb. You are driving a few tons of steel, at speed, in between other tons of steel and often between fragile little piles of flesh, can you just drive please?

August 13th, 2014

The Other Rosetta

It sometimes feels like we are standing still in our “space age” progress but then you SpaceX / Elon Musk news and you feel we’re finally moving again. Sometimes you even get progress from other sources, like the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft rendezvousing with a comet for the first time.

The Rosetta mission will be the first to give scientists close-up measurements of a comet as it transforms from a cold and inactive state to an active body that sheds hundreds of kilos of dust and gas as it swings around the sun. The comet is in a 6.5-year elliptical orbit that comes within the orbits of Mars and Earth and back out to beyond the gas giant Jupiter. “After 10 years, five months and four days travelling towards our destination, looping around the Sun five times and clocking up 6.4bn kilometres, we are delighted to announce finally, we are here,” said ESA’s director general, Jean-Jacques Dordain. “Europe’s Rosetta is now the first spacecraft in history to rendezvous with a comet, a major highlight in exploring our origins. Discoveries can start.”
August 11th, 2014


As I start blogging again (!), one of the things I’ll be mentioning regularly are algorithms. Computation is one of the driving force of many changes in society today but the word itself, the creation of, the uses and impacts of algorithms are often hard to grasp. Here’s a “mundane” usage yet extraordinary technically example, researchers at Microsoft have created software which takes first-person video and speeds it up—common enough—but also smooths out the result dramatically.

August 11th, 2014

“Impossible” Space Drive

NASA have released a report laying out some research results around an “impossible” microwave thrusters, which might confirm. a major breakthrough in space propulsion. Wired also has a follow up, 10 questions about Nasa’s ‘impossible’ space drive answered.

This compares with Nasa’s plans using conventional technology which takes six months just to get there, and requires several hundred tons to be put into Earth’s orbit to start with. You also have to stay there for at least 18 months while you wait for the planets to align again for the journey back. The new drive provides enough thrust to overcome the gravitational attraction of the Sun at these distances, which makes manoeuvring much easier. A less conservative projection has an advanced drive developing ten times as much thrust for the same power — this cuts the transit time to Mars to 28 days, and can generally fly around the solar system at will, a true Nasa dream machine.
August 8th, 2014

Some Ebola Myths

Lots of ebola alarm in the media, one researcher decided do debunk some myths which basically translates to; “don’t panic, especially out of West Africa.” Myth 3 for example:

I blame this one on The Hot Zone, which provided graphic descriptions of what could happen with an Ebola infection, including bleeding from every body orifice and “liquefying” internally. However, that’s not what usually does happen. More commonly, patients look weak and are very ill. There may be blood in their vomit or diarrhea, or occasionally from their gums or nose. Dehydration is a big problem, and in some cases getting intravenous fluids may be the difference between life and death. But blood does not typically “pour” from a person as their skin tears off at the touch, as The Hot Zone suggested.
August 8th, 2014

The Monkey Didn’t Do It

A monkey went a bit viral yesterday, in their transparency report the Wikimedia Foundation said they denied a take down request because the photographer didn’t actually own the copyright since the picture in question was taken by the monkey. Multiple media and social media users jumped on it with titles like Wikipedia refuses to delete photo as ‘monkey owns it’ and general jokes and hilarity ensued. No big deal except, like most issues, the quick descent into jokes and diluted meaning glance over actual issues and incomplete understanding. The Foundation didn’t argue the monkey had the copyright, they argued there was no author, not the same thing at all. A better look at the actual decision here:

The Foundation’s argument may be apparent to long-time readers: despite the camera owner’s claims, if the macaque in question genuinely had control of the camera and composition, then there is no human author—which, under US law, means there’s no author at all. That may break with people’s instincts, notes Public Knowledge’s Sherwin Siy: surely a new and popular photograph must have some copyright in there somewhere. A common misconception, which began perhaps with the original Telegraph story about the image, is that the monkey holds the copyright herself. Not so, of course; as our own Sarah Jeong [ed: welcome back!] argues in the Guardian, the truth is we disincentivize animal creativity greatly by denying any sort of IP protection to our brethren in the kingdom Animalia. —5 Useful Articles – Vol. 1 Issue 19
August 7th, 2014

Mon & Dad Expectations

Around the tech world recently there’s been a number of articles and debates around expectations from mom CEOs, more specifically the habit of asking them how they manage to balance the demands of being both a mom and a CEO. Seems men never get asked that question. I certainly wont debate that, it’s clear that women have it harder in business settings, for many aspects of work life. However, I think there’s another aspect to those sex specific CEO questions; people assume men can’t balance the two, but seem to think women just might be able to. There is after all the expression “super mom” but how often do you hear “super dad” used for the same kind of parent + job superness? Not very. Obviously most journalist in those cases are thinking more about failings and are underestimating the women they are interviewing—treating the two genders unequally, but I think there’s a part of low expectations from men CEOs. I think we should expect more.

One male CEO just stepped down because he couldn’t make it work and wanted to spend more times with his kids. Kudos.

Earlier this summer, Matt Lauer asked Mary Barra, the CEO of GM, whether she could balance the demands of being a mom and being a CEO. The Atlantic asked similar questions of PepsiCo’s female CEO Indra Nooyi. As a male CEO, I have been asked what kind of car I drive and what type of music I like, but never how I balance the demands of being both a dad and a CEO… I recognize that by writing this I may be disqualifying myself from some future CEO role. Will that cost me tens of millions of dollars someday? Maybe. Life is about choices. Right now, I choose to spend more time with my family and am confident that I can continue to have an meaningful and rewarding work life while doing so. At first, it seemed like a hard choice, but the more I have sat with the choice the more certain I am that it is the right choice. —Why I am leaving the best job I ever had

And finally, why is failing at your business hailed as a great lesson (in startup world anyway) but recognizing you failed at balance and stepping back to prioritize family not seen as as great a lesson?

August 7th, 2014