After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, people living in some mountain villages waited weeks for emergency food to arrive. Landslides had taken out roads, and the country's limited number of helicopters couldn't always safely fly where they were needed.
Delivery drones would have helped. That's one reason why Nigel Gifford—part of the U.K.-based team that developed an early version of Facebook's solar-powered drones—is now working on a cheap drone to bring food and other humanitarian supplies to disaster zones.
Because the drone, called the Pouncer, is designed for one-way delivery, it can be broken down and reused when it arrives. Chop up the lightweight plywood frame, and it becomes kindling for a fire to cook the food. The wings themselves are packed with meals. The protective covers around the food can be used in shelters.
"The surface of the wings are covered in what we call a salad bowl material," says Gifford, CEO of Windhorse Aerospace, the startup designing the drone. "If you go to your local supermarket and go to the salad counter there's that clear plastic bowls that you get salad in. Once the food's in the airframe, we'll then wrap it in the same material."
As the design develops, parts of the frame and even electronics may also be made of food. "We're keeping everything electrical to the absolute minimum we need," says Gifford. "Our food technologist guys are turning around and saying well eventually you could make all the servers that move the control surfaces out of food. They're thinking of wrapping the electronics in bouillon cubes."
The startup thinks that using its drones will be as cheap as current deliveries made by parachute drop, but more precise. The drones, inspired by the wingsuits worn by base jumpers, are also designed to drop from a plane. But the tiny onboard navigation system can deliver food precisely, within 22 feet from a target. The shape also helps the drone glide as far as 25 miles from a plane without a motor—so in conflict zones, or other areas that are dangerous to fly, planes and crew can stay a safe distance away.
Along with food, the drones can also deliver medicine and other critical supplies. It's not the first humanitarian drone. In Rwanda, San Francisco-based Zipline International is using drones to deliver blood for transfusions; in a pilot program in Ghana, drones are delivering birth control pills and contraception. But other projects in more challenging areas—like the Syrian Airlift Project, which wanted to use drones to deliver aid to Syria—failed after facing technical and funding obstacles.
Windhorse Aeronautics will have to overcome some of the same challenges, but the team hopes to have the drone ready for use next year.
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