The Unmanned Samaritans

September 1, 2015
By Daniel DuBravec

Groups want drones to deliver medical supplies, blood samples and vaccines to isolated areas.

Early this year, violent floods brought immense destruction to communities in the Zambezia province of central Mozambique, Africa, endangering thousands of children and adults. Floods ravaged the region, decimating roads and bridges; 70 percent were unusable for ground vehicles, and some were unmanageable even by foot. In the absence of electrical power and a way to resupply gasoline for generators, refrigerated vaccines became unusable. Furthermore, damaged roadways meant that much-needed supplies never arrived.

The all-too-common scenario represents an emergency-management logistics nightmare but introduces opportunities for efficient, low-cost technology solutions—especially with advancements in autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Drone delivery systems might provide alternative and affordable solutions for vaccine and medical supply transport.

At any given time, 1 billion people in the world live without access to reliable roads, according to World Bank research. Consider the impact: When a disease outbreak occurs, medical response teams often need to send blood samples to labs for analysis—labs that might be a great distance from the outbreak location. Delivery drones could alter such dire circumstances, offering solutions to transport small packages.

UAVs also could help in areas of intense military conflict, where solo airplanes that carry large quantities of cargo often are the targets of anti-aircraft weapons. A recent blog post in the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum predicts that in these locations, an alternative method, such as a fleet of delivery drones, could reach multiple sites without deadly consequences. While a single cargo plane can only service one location, a fleet of drones can distribute needed medical supplies and vaccines to a variety of topographically diverse and hard-to-reach areas. UAVs are immune to difficult terrain or impassable roads.

By contrast, urban areas present different challenges but could benefit nonetheless from UAVs. Drones encounter many obstacles when delivering packages in densely populated urban areas. Companies such as Amazon and Deutsche Post DHL want to solve the problem and are testing various design solutions to courier small parcels. Complicated aerial technology remains one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) main hesitations to authorizing the use of commercial drones in the United States.

Electronic sensor and software technologies still are years from accurately avoiding obstacles in flight paths, Peggy Gilligan, FAA associate administrator for aviation safety, testified during an April hearing before a U.S. Senate panel on autonomous drone delivery flights. Drone delivery in urban areas might take some time to come into use because of the legal and safety issues that still must be ironed out—primarily because drones would fly near people, animals, buildings and other aerial vehicles, Mirko Kovac, director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory and lecturer in robotics at Imperial College London, told technology news website TechCrunch. That said, recent advancements have been recorded in automated obstacle avoidance for drones in flight. A company called Panoptes (Greek for “all-seeing”) reports that it developed a solution that, according to its website, “takes information from any sensor, creates a knowledge map about the environment and transforms that map into actionable information that becomes the foundation for safe UAV operations and their commercial application.”

With thousands of drone types and models available, selecting the appropriate one for vaccine delivery remains another challenge. Entrepreneurs and humanitarian organizations have tested three basic approaches and designs: quadcopter, fixed-wing drone and Google’s failed hybrid design called Project Wing.

The quadcopter design uses four rotors that lift and maneuver the drone during takeoff and flight. The design has been tested by DHL, a German postal delivery company, and Matternet, a Singularity University incubator start-up in Menlo Park, California. The organizations independently tested drones carrying payloads that flew between 6 miles and 12 miles. DHL reportedly made improvements with its latest version of “parcelcopter,” reaching altitudes of 164 feet and flying as fast as 40 mph. In March, Matternet announced the release of Matternet ONE, a quadcopter that can carry slightly more than 2 pounds and travel about 12 miles on one battery charge. Some drone creators are experimenting with adding more rotational blades in an octocopter design.

Testing is also being done on fixed-wing models. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) called “On-Demand Vaccine Delivery Via Low-Cost UAVs” examined the feasibility of a fixed-wing drone, which is similar in design to an airplane. An automated bungee system launches the drone. Instead of landing, the drone uses parachutes to drop vaccines at a preselected site. MIT’s research indicates that compared with the quadcopter, the fixed-wing design might be more resilient to changing weather conditions, able to carry larger payloads and travel farther distances with less power. Researchers communicated with the drones using cellphones, making them a strong option for use in Africa, where nearly 90 percent of the continent is covered by cellular networks.

Experimentation also is continuing with hybrid drones. For more than two years, Google quietly worked to combine a rotor-driven model with a single-wing design. Project Wing was not as viable as Google had hoped, and the company abandoned the effort in favor of a quadcopter design, according to The Wall Street Journal. A hybrid model from ComQuest Ventures called the Vertex, currently seeking funding through a Kickstarter campaign, uses a quadcopter design for takeoff and landing and a winged design for forward flight.

Of course, engineers face challenges beyond selecting the appropriate design. Having the right power source is paramount to ensure that drones can reach remote areas. Drones can use gasoline or be powered by batteries. Battery-powered quadcopters are readily observable, used today to record landscape video or outdoor weddings. But they are limited by the life of the battery. Top Flight Technologies, based in Malden, Massachusetts, developed a gas-electric hybrid multirotor UAV that can fly up to two hours and 100 miles while carrying up to 20 pounds, making it the technological breakthrough that drone delivery proponents have been anticipating.

The sheer manpower behind the remote-delivery effort indicates that practical applications are likely in the near future. There are, however, nontechnical obstacles that might hamper progress, especially in the United States.

Required policy changes slow the movement toward widespread use more than technological hiccups, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos expressed during a Business Insider conference. “I think it is sad but possible that the U.S. could be late,” Bezos said. “It’s highly likely that other countries will do it first. I may be too skeptical. I hope I’m wrong.”

Amazon’s frustration with FAA restrictions led the company to buy Canadian property a mere 2,000 feet from the U.S. border to test drone delivery systems. The e-commerce giant isn’t alone; Google tested Project Wing in Australia.

Commercial pressures might have swayed the attitudes of FAA leaders, who began collaborating with industry to study the issue, and they could lead to an eventual easing, if not outright lifting, of some drone flight bans. The FAA has let three property insurers use drones to record damage for claims after a natural disaster and OK’d plans for San Diego Gas and Electric to inspect remote infrastructure with drones to determine the condition of pipelines and power lines. The FAA also approved a test flight for a drone to deliver medications to a remote clinic in Wise County, Virginia. The practical, beneficial and highly successful test run on July 17 was conducted by NASA’s Langley Research Center in partnership with Virginia Tech. It used a drone designed by Flirtey Incorporated, an Australian drone delivery start-up now in Nevada. The UAV can carry supplies weighing up to 5.5 pounds for flights as far as 20 miles.

For years, drones used in war to drop bombs greatly shaped U.S. public perception of the technology. The perception is changing, and a 2015 Walker Sands survey revealed that 88 percent of U.S. consumers look forward to drone delivery, and 66 percent expect it to happen within the next five years. Elsewhere in the world, particularly in developing nations, populations tend to embrace the use of drones, says Abi Weaver, director of the American Red Cross’ Global Technology Project. Research netted results of optimism when local authorities and organizations used the technology, especially if villages and communities received economic benefits. However, when corporations or national governments used the technology, feedback indicated skepticism.

Hobbyists drive the development of drone software, designs and applications saturating the market. March 14 marked the inaugural International Drone Day, with a novel proclamation: “Drones are good!” Events around the world involved drone hobbyists, start-ups and fans of all ages showcasing the many ways drones can be used for humanitarian purposes. A recent campaign on the international crowdfunding website Indiegogo solicited 8,044 donations and raised more than $2.1 million to bring to market the PlexiDrone, a camera drone. The Red Cross, World Health Organization, UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders, with their humanitarian focus, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation embrace the idea of drone usage.

The Red Cross started testing the use of drones in 2014 to deliver critical relief items to isolated communities for one project and to create an ad hoc mesh network for communications for another effort. The École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s Afrotech program organized a nonprofit consortium to create two air routes for drones in Africa to carry cargo. One is designated as the “red line” to ferry medical and emergency supplies to outlying areas. The “blue express” encompasses commercial use in urban areas. “Drones delivering cargo today might carry 6 pounds. In perhaps three years, they’ll carry 22 pounds and 44 pounds a few years later,” Jonathan Ledgard, director of Afrotech, predicted in a March 31 NPR blog post.

Echoing his optimism, leaders at WorldCargo, the air cargo division of Swiss International Air Lines, partnered with Matternet to testing drone delivery. “This is not a dream—the technology is all here,” states Oliver Evans, chief cargo officer of SwissWorld Cargo.

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It sounds like a good idea until you remember that people from New Jersy to California are shooting down drones.

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