Norman Foster Foundation, rendering for Droneport (2016) (all images courtesy Norman Foster Foundation)

By 2030, every rural town in Africa could be equipped with an undulating red brick droneport, designed by starchitect Norman Foster, to serve as a hub for deliveries of crucial medical supplies. Dubbed the “world’s smallest airport,” a full-scale prototype of the first droneport has been unveiled at the 15th International Architecture Biennale in Venice. The design aims to help compensate for the dearth of infrastructure on the world’s second-largest continent, which often prevents people in far-flung regions from accessing life-giving supplies.

Africa’s population is set to double to 2.2 billion by 2050. The gap between the population and infrastructural growth is drastically widening: Only a third of Africans live within a mile of an all-season road. There are no continental highways and not enough bridges and tunnels to meet the needs of most communities. “Something as basic as blood is not always available for timely treatment,” Norman Foster, founder of Foster + Partners, said in a statement. “We require immediate bold, radical solutions to address this issue.” The proposed solution: Use flying robots, or cargo drones, to carry supplies over mountains, lakes, and deserts to inaccessible communities. “The Droneport project is about doing ‘more with less’, capitalizing 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,” Foster said.

The pilot droneport program will launch later this year in Rwanda, the mountainous, landlocked East African country nicknamed “Land of a Thousand Hills.” Three droneports, to be completed by 2020, will allow the drone network to send supplies to 44 percent of the country. Parallel drone networks will operate two separate services: The “redline” will use smaller drones for delivering medical and emergency supplies, while the commercial “blueline” will transport bigger loads, such as spare parts, electronics, and e-commerce.

“Rwanda’s challenging geographical and social landscape makes it an ideal test-bed for the droneport project,” Foster said. He expects the pilot program to “save lives immediately.” The architects plan to expand the droneport network first to the neighboring Congo, and then to all African countries and other developing economies, over the next 15 years.

Rwanda Network

Norman Foster Foundation, pilot program for Droneport Project in Rwanda (2016)

The Pritzker Prize-winning Foster, an airport designer and pilot of sailplanes and other aircraft, was tapped as design lead by Jonathan Ledgard, director of Afrotech and founder of Redline, a network of leading roboticists, architects, and logisticians developing Africa’s drone delivery network. The Droneport is the inaugural project of the Norman Foster Foundation.

“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,” Ledgard, also an acclaimed novelist, said in a statement. “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.”

The design is not only tough and cheap, but also beautiful, an undulating chain of vaulted modules in red brick. To create construction jobs, the architects intend for the droneports to be assembled by local community members: A kit of the basic framework and brick-press machinery will be delivered to each site, while clay for bricks and boulders to build the structures will be locally sourced. Each droneport also features a health clinic, a digital fabrication shop, a post and courier room, and an e-commerce trading hub. If all goes as planned, the droneport will become a nexus not just for flying robots but for human communities, too.

Hanger and Workshop

Norman Foster Foundation, rendering for Droneport hanger and workshop (2016)

How it is Built

Norman Foster Foundation, rendering for Droneport (2016)

Community network

Norman Foster Foundation/Redline, plans for Droneport Community Network (2016)


Norman Foster Foundation/Redline, rendering for Droneport interior (2016)

Norman Foster Concept Sketch 1

Norman Foster, concept sketch for Droneport Project (2016)

Norman Foster Concept Sketch 2

Norman Foster, concept sketch for Droneport Project (2016)

Venice Prototype Pavilion

Norman Foster and Redline, Droneport Project, prototype at Venice Architecture Bienanale (2016) (image courtesy Nigel Young and the Norman Foster Foundation)

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.