When humanitarian disasters strike, the challenge faced by many governments is finding a way to bridge the last mile to the disaster zone and get aid to those who need it most. Wings For Aid is an organisation that has developed ‘wings’ to solve this exact problem. The concept sees pilotless aircraft drop award-winning flying boxes, with pin-point precision, to deliver vital supplies in even the most difficult to reach locations.
The brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur and innovator Barry Koperberg, Wings For Aid was founded in 2014, with initial support coming from the Dutch government and followed by partnerships in the private sector, including with Rhenus.
With the first successful test mission for the UN under its belt, Wings For Aid now has the potential to reach previously off-the-grid locations, and looks set to be operational by the end of 2020. We sat down with Barry, along with Rhenus’s Richard Visser, to learn more about this unique partnership.
My career background is as a Cooperation Consultant in various industries. And I also have a lot of experience in bridging gaps between different cultures, whether that be technical or cultural. But it was in 2011 when I was asked to brainstorm with the Technical University of Delft, discussing swarm intelligence algorithms and how the aviation industry could capitalise on this, that the first shoots of Wings For Aid were born.
It was around this time that there was an on-going humanitarian emergency in Somalia. Aid was available but couldn’t be distributed into the country effectively. I was listening to the news on the radio while driving when a relief worker said: “If only there was a fine-meshed system to bring relief items in, in addition to the Hercules aircraft and helicopters. But this doesn’t exist.”
The idea for a fleet of unmanned aircraft that were capable of dropping boxes came to me there and then.
It was during a presentation that Barry was delivering in The Hague in 2017 that I first became aware of the work he was doing. I knew there was massive potential for a collaboration between Rhenus and Wings For Aid, for Rhenus to use its vast international logistics might to enable the organisation to work as a full-service, end-to-end operation. Rhenus has, for many years, worked on several humanitarian aid projects, delivering large amounts of relief goods to places that need them, so this was a natural fit for me. I have visited some of the places we have delivered aid to and have seen, at first-hand, how getting the goods to a big airport is just the easy part. It’s the last mile, the distribution of the goods, that is so difficult. A helicopter is currently the only feasible option to transport goods into the hardest to reach places, which is extremely costly and can be risky. You also need a very big space for a helicopter to land, which isn’t always possible, plus a distribution team on the ground. This is all a logistical challenge. So, with this in mind, I approached Barry with the offer of using Rhenus’s resources to take the project worldwide.
Modern aircraft are essentially flown by autopilot, so the idea of small automated planes (as opposed to drones) isn’t that far-fetched! Routes can be easily planned from a distribution point on the ground, very much like conventional mission planning. And the space in the aircraft can be optimised, as you don’t need to leave room for the pilot. Yet having said that we would always plan flights over areas as scarcely populated as possible, to mitigate any risk. The 10-meter wingspan planes can then drop specially designed boxes, with wings, to give the landing pin-point precision and content integrity – this is something which alternative methods have never been able to do.
The problem with traditional air drops is that you usually have a parachute attached to the contents and this often results in drift, making location accuracy difficult to predict. As a solution to this, we thought ‘why don’t we make a box with its own wings?’ The winged boxes have been designed so the bottom should always hit the ground first, absorbing the shock. One box can carry up to 20KG of weight and tests have shown how reliable the design is in protecting the contents on landing. In fact, the design won the TIACA award for sustainable innovation in 2019.
System tests have so far been successful and, thanks to Rhenus arranging the logistics processes, UN observers have now assessed the product and its viability. So, we are on track to start deploying our aircraft by the end of 2020.
Autonomous aircraft dropping deliveries is a good means of delivery when dealing with Covid-19, as it minimises person-to-person contact. Once we have a vaccine available, it could be vital to have Wings For Aid aircraft standing by at specific points, to safely distribute it to the people who need it. Together with Rhenus, we can setup our regional bases. With secure and precise flight planning, hurdles with regards to regulations and safety compliance can be taken. From the 1st of July, fresh regulations for remotely piloted operations move into place. So we are ready for this project to take off, getting essential supplies to those that need them.