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A Safer Humanitarian Air Drop, Courtesy Of Crowdsourcing And The Air Force

Dropping those pallets of water and food out of planes isn’t as easy as it looks. But through the wisdom of crowds (and one smart Dutchman), now we can get aid to people after disasters quite a bit easier.

In theory, one of the most effective ways to get supplies into a disaster situation is with an air drop. In practice, air drops can be clunky and ineffective. For instance, packages can only be deposited into unpopulated areas because of the risk of falling debris: No one wants to kill someone while dropping pallets of water bottles. It’s a quandary that the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) has puzzled over in the past. Instead of tapping its own researchers to figure out a solution, AFRL last year turned to the crowd, and found an answer from an unlikely source: an engineer in the Netherlands.

The AFRL used the Innocentive open innovation platform, which gathers challenges from commercial, government, and NGO partners—like NASA and Eli Lilly—and puts them up for "solvers" to figure out. Winning solutions receive monetary prizes.

Siepko Bekkering never considered entering a crowdsourced competition before. But after a friend lent him the book Wikinomics, which explores the benefits of mass collaboration, he found himself on the Innocentive website, searching for challenges. When he came up on the humanitarian air drop challenge, he immediately got to work, and ultimately spent two months coming up with his solution, which pocketed him $10,000.

So what, exactly, did Bekkering figure out? He declined to talk about details because of intellectual property concerns, but InnoCentive lists a basic description on its website:

"His solution consisted of a modular container system with rollers on the inside and a chute to move the contents past the wake vortex caused by the open ramp in flight. This system could be loaded with a normal fork lift and easily snapped together. This system was similar to systems currently in use, but completely eliminated the box and skid plate from exiting the aircraft." In layman’s terms, it comes out of the aircraft more smoothly, and using less material. It’s light and easy to assemble. In short, a better air drop.

Despite his success, Bekkering has no plans to enter other Innocentive challenges. Says Bekkering: "Currently I am not working on other issues, because I recently switched jobs. I have to say that every now and then I check the mail for updates, but none are as appealing as the airdrop challenge."

The AFRL, for its part, is still relying on Innocentive to solve at least some of its quandaries. Other challenges currently listed on the site include a blueprint for a medical transportation device for combat rescue, a method to remove surfactants and emulsions from fuel, and a concept to create a collaborative nano-bio manufacturing institute.

The Air Force’s interest in crowdsourcing solutions is part of a larger trend in U.S. government, as Fast Company noted last year. But the proof of whether these competitions work is in the solutions, and in the case of Bekkering’s proposal, we’ll have to wait until next Fall to see a prototype—and until the next disaster to see it in action.