Rise of the drones: Aid by air

More typically associated with armed conflict than humanitarian aid, two technology start-ups believe these flying fleets could hold the key to aid for remote areas 

Drones are more typically associated with armed conflict than humanitarian aid. However, for two ambitious technology start-ups, Matternet and senseFly, these flying fleets could hold the key to delivering vital supplies to remote areas without reliable road access.

California-based Matternet believes drones are critical in reaching the  unreachable. The firm is using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to connect with some of the 1 billion people in the developing world without access to all-season roads.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 85 per cent of roads are unusable when it rains, leaving whole communities cut off from medical aid and other services. The cost of building all-weather road networks for these regions could run into billions of dollars, and take several decades to achieve.

Matternet’s solution is to build a network of landing stations 10-kilometres apart, and use flying drones to ferry lightweight goods between the bases. A UAV would take 15 minutes to carry a 2kg package between stations, a size large enough to deliver vaccines or lab samples, for example.

The projected cost of each drone would be between $3,000 and $5,000, according to Andreas Raptopoulos, founder and CEO of Matternet, with each landing station costing about the same amount. The company estimates it could cover an area of 138-sq-km with 150 UAVs at a cost of $900,000. After that, each drone trip would cost between just $0.50 and $1.00. By comparison, says Raptopoulos, building a 2km, one-lane road requires closer to $1m in funding.

Matternet envisages building the biggest network since the internet, and revolutionising the delivery of supplies.

“I see it becoming a platform for economic growth,” says Raptopoulos. “South Africa and southeast Asia have seen explosive growth but they have poor infrastructure. There is an opportunity to build even better systems than those seen in the West – just as Africa leapfrogged the developed world with mobile phones. We are creating a new system for the future.”

The UAVs got their first test run delivering aid packages to camps in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Tests have also been carried out in the Dominican Republic, and Matternet is keen to establish a base in the Middle East as a hub for the wider region and North Africa.

“We have to use our ingenuity and technological prowess to build the most advanced technologies we’ve ever created, and take them where they are needed most”

The next trial is planned for Lesotho in southern Africa, where Matternet is also in talks with the healthcare non-profit Doctors Without Borders to carry  diagnostic tests for HIV from clinics in remote regions to hospital labs. Seventy per cent of people in Lesotho with HIV/Aids live in rural areas. They need blood tests twice a year, but with only 152 rural clinics in the whole of the country to collect the samples, and 19 hospitals to perform the analyses, it is a daunting challenge.

“We are raising funding now for a test project. We have a goal of $250,000 to pilot for one month,” says Raptopoulos.

Matternet isn’t alone. Drone  technology is being harnessed more and more by non-governmental organisations to improve their work in hard-to-reach or insecure locations, from monitoring deforested areas in Brazil and combating wildlife poaching in Nepal, to surveillance of  potential conflict hotspots in South Sudan.

Swiss-based senseFly is using boomerang-shaped flying machines to seize on drones’ mapping capabilities for humanitarian purposes. In early 2013, the firm joined up with Drone Adventures in Haiti, mapping areas affected by the 2010 earthquake and the 2012 hurricane, after satellite maps were rendered dramatically out of date.

Backed by the UN’s International  Organisation for Migration, senseFly’s eBee drones mapped 45-sq-km in six days. The 3D maps pinpointed dangerous riverbeds at risk of flooding camps, and identified shantytowns to help speed aid distribution and development of infrastructure. Flying between 90 and 150 metres above the ground, the eBee drones can produce high quality maps of between 3cm and 7cm per pixel. According to the company, each drone costs around $22,000 and can fly for 45 minutes on a single charge.

“It’s cheaper and easier to use than planes. Once you have the drone, you can use it as many times as you want. Compared to satellites, we are much more precise and can operate even in cloudy conditions,” says senseFly’s Sophie Secretan.

SenseFly is working with the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining to eliminate abandoned  explosives in post-conflict areas. “We create a precise map of the area before they go in with their demining instruments,” says Secretan. “Mines are often under branches, trees and grass, so you won’t see them on the pictures. But having an up-to-date map of the area is really helpful.”

The opportunities for innovation in the humanitarian sphere are growing as governments open up cautiously to civilian drone use. In late 2013, the US’ aviation administration outlined the conditions under which small drones could be flown in US airspace, clearing the way for the testing of new applications.

“We live in an era of unprecedented technological possibility,” says Raptopoulos at Matternet. “We have to use our ingenuity and technological prowess to build the most advanced technologies we’ve ever created, and take them where they are needed most.”