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Cloudline's Autonomous Airships Offer New Alternative to Drones

Led by visionary founder Spencer Horne, Cloudline is a South African startup aiming at revolutionising aerial operations in Africa and beyond. The company develops autonomous airships that redefine aerial monitoring and logistics’ rules and cost structure. In this exclusive Q&A session with the research team at The FutureList, we dive into the journey of Cloudline, the inspiration behind their innovative technology, and the transformative applications of their energy-efficient airships.

The FutureList: What inspired you to develop an autonomous airship?

Spencer: Growing up in Cape Town near a railway crossing first sparked my love for transportation tech. After studying at Harvard, I worked as a consultant and had the opportunity to travel across East Africa for my work. During this time, I experienced firsthand just how bad the infrastructure deficit could be. As I ventured further away from major roads, I noticed a decline in economic activity and limited opportunities for people to participate in the economy. This observation led me to explore the potential of delivery drones. However, I realised that scaling up drones would be non-linear in complexity, which led me to the idea that airships may hold the answer. Recognising the advantages of airships in terms of size, capacity, and cost-efficiency, I founded Cloudline to develop autonomous airships for aerial monitoring and last-mile logistics. With my mechanical engineering background and business consulting experience, I set out to revolutionise the economics of large-scale monitoring and logistics as the infrastructural unlock in Africa and the developing world at large. 

The FutureList: Can you discuss some specific applications of Cloudline’s airships that you’re particularly excited about?

Spencer: I’m particularly excited about multi-layered opportunities powerline monitoring, where we can generate value in different ways. Our airships capture high-resolution imaging to detect wear, vegetation encroachment, and overheating in transmission lines, which can lead to devastating forest fires. Comprehensive area mapping and surveying is another area, with our airships providing far higher resolution than satellites for urban planning, agriculture, and research. Environmental data capture enables us to measure and improve climate interventions by collecting air quality, water quality, and land pollution data. It feels poetic that we can contribute to ecological activities like wildlife management and conservation while substituting carbon-intensive helicopters that do this work today. These applications highlight the versatility and impact of our technology in creating greener, safer, and more efficient solutions. 

The FutureList: How do you envision Cloudline’s technology evolving and expanding in the coming years?

Spencer: A few big leaps in technology and capability will be game-changing for our solution. The first is going from a long endurance of a few hours to multi-day missions and complete independence from any infrastructure.

The second is scaling to a point where the solution is not the individual airships in deployment but where we have achieved enough to scale that the network becomes the product. 

Finally, we have built a modular platform to benefit from the many incremental advances in areas such as battery and fuel-cell technology, the capability and affordability of control electronics, and advances in material science that continue to expand the capabilities of our aircraft. 

The FutureList: What challenges did you face in getting this all-new type of device approved by regulators, and how did you address them?

Spencer: One of the primary challenges we faced was the lack of established regulations tailored explicitly to autonomous airships. As a pioneer in this field, we had to work closely with regulatory authorities to develop guidelines and safety standards that would ensure the safe operation of our airships.

Collaboration was essential in overcoming these hurdles. We collaborated with regulators, aviation experts, and industry stakeholders to address concerns, share best practices, and refine our technology. We conducted thorough risk assessments and provided comprehensive documentation regarding the safety features, fail-safe mechanisms, and emergency procedures of our airships.

It’s a long and laborious process, but it also builds a moat behind us as we go by unlocking permissions unavailable to other unmanned aircraft. 

The FutureList: What advice do you have for other inventors and entrepreneurs looking to bring innovative technologies to market?

Spencer: My advice to tech entrepreneurs in Africa is to keep pushing the boundaries of what we build on the continent. Today more than ever, deep tech knowledge is becoming distributed and democratized. Labs in South African universities are generating engineers in our field that we would previously have found only in Seattle, Wichita, Shenzhen, or Toulouse.

For nearly two years, I was met with lukewarm acceptance about building an aerospace venture in Africa that would challenge the global status quo and the earnest question, “You and whose army?”; until that search found genuine belief and support from the growing number of backers, stakeholders, customers, and, indeed, the team we have today. The tech entrepreneur should remember that succeeding in deep tech on the continent won’t be about the tech itself but about the people you bring along for the journey.

As Lanzao del Vasto said: “You want a better, more fraternal, more just world? Well then, start building it: Who is stopping you? Build it inside yourself and around you; build it with those who want it. Build it small, and it will grow.”

Visit Cloudline’s profile on The FutureList here.

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