DISCOVERY MARCH 29, 2017

Drone Technology Will Help Us In Ways We’ve Never Dreamed Possible

Posted by Rachel Riederer

In 2015, drone delivery company Flirtey made headlines when it became the first company to get FAA approval for drone deliveries in the United States. It then made good on that promise in 2016, delivering snacks and sundries from 7-Eleven to customers in Reno, Nevada. The seventy-seven deliveries in the Reno test run went smoothly, with the drones hovering above the delivery addresses and lowering down the cargo container to customers on the ground.

There’s plenty of buzz about the future of drone delivery for U.S. consumers, with Amazon featuring a parachuting package in its Super Bowl ad, and filing a patent for a floating airship warehouse to facilitate drone delivery. But residents in most U.S. cities are already well served by the postal service and a multitude of delivery people on all manner of bikes and trucks. Where drone delivery could really shine is in rural and hard-to-access areas. And they can deliver supplies that are far more crucial than pizza and Slurpees.

Zipline, a Silicon Valley-based drone delivery company, is using the technology to deliver blood and emergency medical supplies in Rwanda. For the Rwandan drone project, the company operates a fleet of 15 small, unmanned aircrafts. When healthcare workers at a clinic or hospital need blood for a transfusion, or other vaccines or medications that they don’t have on hand, they can request the supplies via text message, and a Zipline drone will be dispatched. The tiny planes—with a wingspan of just 8 feet—can reach the clinic far more quickly than a delivery person travelling on land. Once they reach their destination, the drones fly low, but do not land. They release their cargo and let it drop by parachute, and return back to hub.

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At the UK-based Windhorse Aeronautics, engineers are taking the idea of the humanitarian drone even further. The Pouncer, which Windhorse founder Nigel Gifford aims to bring to market this year, is an unmanned aircraft made out of edible and combustible materials. Pouncers are built to be deployed to areas suffering from humanitarian crises, where they will land, and in addition to a payload of food and water, the entire aircraft will be usable to the people on the ground—either as food or kindling.

Gifford was inspired to tackle the problems of inefficiency and waste in humanitarian aid when he visited the Pakistan/Afghan border several years ago. “I was in the Khyber Pass, and there were thousands of Afghan refugees there, and there were aid agencies there, and they were doing their best.” But there was wasted food, he says, “because the food that was being sent was unfamiliar to the refugees, and there is often waste, fraud, and mismanagement along the way that prevents aid from reaching the people it’s intended for.” Pouncer can be loaded in a safe environment, with the cultural and religious foods that the recipients will recognize and want to eat. And it shortens that chain where there could be fraud or waste. It tightens down the delivery.”

Gifford has talked to some in the humanitarian community who don’t want anything to do with drones—for them, UAV is a four-letter word. “’We don't want anything to do with drones,’ they said, because drones had killed their workers.” But Gifford sees these aircraft as providers of safety. He looks back on the crisis in Aleppo, where food aid intended for civilians often never reached its intended recipients, and where aid workers had to put themselves at risk unloading trucks of food and water in wide-open spaces. Using the GPS-guided unmanned aircrafts, Gifford surmises, “We could have launched 50 kg Pouncers that would have fed 100 people a day, to an accuracy of 7 meters.” The technology is being developed quickly, with test flights scheduled for May of this year. “This is happening really fast,” says Gifford. “We have to take advantage of this technology to save lives.”

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