You founded Wings For Aid in 2014, but you don’t come from a non-governmental agency or drone background. What was it that inspired you to enter into the humanitarian aid sector?
It was a combination of things. Firstly, I’m super curious to learn about new technology. I’m known as a curious person, so I was introduced to drone technology at the Technical University of Delft [in the Netherlands]. I found it all very interesting. One of my questions was: “Where will this technology go, when and how?” The university answered that, in aerospace terms, things go very slow but at a high quality, and can take 20 years to mature.
Secondly, as I was driving home, I listened to the radio and there was someone providing humanitarian aid in Somalia. They had the aid ready to be distributed at the coast; however, there was no way to get it further into the country. They said that helicopters are too expensive or not available, and large air drops were not suitable, also costly and only drop all in one place. They wished that they had a fine-mazed distribution network that would help. As I was listening, I thought, hang on! I went back to the to the university, made a sketch, and demonstrated how this new technology of theirs could be applied in humanitarian aid.
Wings For Aid is innovative in many ways, not least the concept of dropping packages without parachutes, having braking flaps incorporated into the boxes themselves. Why did you choose this method and what challenges did you have to overcome to fulfill the vision?
We’re so proud of that. It all is about the word ‘specific’. When I started this project, I connected to many people in the humanitarian sector because, as you have already identified, I knew nothing about humanitarian work. All my knowledge needed to be built up. I already had good political contacts with the [Dutch] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so they sent me to talk to the best people worldwide. For instance, we went to Geneva to the International Red Cross and talked to experts there. We asked, if they could have a drone system to relentlessly deliver packages to people in need, how would they like to have it, starting from scratch? They said they wanted packages that weighed 20kg because then a person can carry the box. And the packages needed to be dropped into an area the size of a tennis court because that is a space that can be made secure. Our experts looked at the requirements and realized that parachutes are unsuitable because, with a little bit of wind, they drift and would miss the drop zone. After brainstorming sessions, I asked if we could we just drop the box directly. If we did that, then we would lose the integrity of the contents. We then connected with the University of Eindhoven, where they do crumple zones for cars [the part of the vehicle that can absorb the impact of a collision]. We decided that we needed a similar crumple zone in the bottom of the box. Then, instead of a parachute, we would try to have a kind of air brake.
We decided that we needed a similar crumple zone in the bottom of the box. Then, instead of a parachute, we would try to have a kind of air brake.
That’s when the whole innovation started. We would make a box that is fully made from sustainable cardboard, so people can reuse the box, throw it away, burn it or use it for insulation. That was the target of the project. And, since the Red Cross told us their requirements for a small drop zone that can be safeguarded, our flaps are the best solution.
You worked with the military in the Caribbean in 2020, have done work in South Africa and Kenya since 2022, and you currently have plans to be able to respond anywhere in the world within 72 hours. What steps are left to achieve this goal?
‘Anywhere in the world within 72 hours’ is a little bit of a bold statement, but we like that. We are motivated to do this because it is the worldwide standard for humanitarian relief and rescue teams. We need to have a regional presence – seven to 10 regional operating bases worldwide where there are assets and trained crews available – and also the procedures in place to move the whole system – the aircraft, the modems and everything you need – swiftly from the one country to the other. We need to train local operators, then have a train-the-trainer program. We have to build capacity to switch on the manufacturing and produce more aircraft and more systems. Very importantly, we have to have all the agreements in place with customs authorities so that we can swiftly move from area to area. I was just in a brainstorming session with a Kenyan customs official to build this framework and put it on paper. And lastly, we have to get the regulations in order worldwide. We work with the JARUS working group for drones. We are in communication with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP). Together we want to set a framework for fast response with a kind of exemption for humanitarian drones to be used. We are close to writing such a framework with experts.
You’ve designed the cardboard boxes to safely land with fragile contents of up to 20kg. Is this the final design?
That is a big yes. It’s something that has been stable for the last couple of years. After the testing in 2018 with the German Aerospace Institute in the Dominican Republic, we had maybe three to four changes on the box to prevent it from tumbling and one more patent, but the size never changed. It is 20kg and 70L, as per the initial preferences set by the Red Cross. The crumple zone has evolved, it took a lot of work because when it was too strong, it would bounce and topple, so a lot of work went into that. Our latest version is about half a year to a year old.
The crumple zone has evolved, it took a lot of work because when it was too strong, it would bounce and topple, so a lot of work went into that
We did another test recently in South Africa where we bought typical water cans of five liters each at a fuel station, put four in each box and then dropped them automatically to land in an area the size of a tennis court. All the cans survived. We’re happy with the box and it is unlikely to change size. We do have one project running of a very novel drone that is fully electric, for which we would consider changing the size of the box. We know it would work because we have tested larger and smaller boxes as part of the development and design process. But in principle we won’t change it, everything is built around our 40x40x60cm cardboard box design.
We had early designs that had strings attached to the flaps, and many people have very bad memories of putting those boxes together. Our product needs to be scalable, but with the strings it wasn’t. Instead of the strings, our design has a fifth flap on top that guarantees that all the other flaps always open.
The drone you use is a Pipistrel-based MiniFreighter. Why did you choose this platform?
I’m a very optimistic and positive person. When I started the project, I wanted to build a blended wing drone, fully electric, and innovate it all at once. Our advisors came together and said: “Barry, no. You have to innovate step by step because otherwise you will never be able to deliver.” At first, I was against it, but they proved to be right. With the help of the Royal Netherlands Air Force, we even funded a crewed aircraft with the cargo supported under the wings, to demonstrate and test a proof of concept for the operation and design of the box – two separate innovations. Then we proceeded to design the cargo drone. We went to a number of aircraft manufacturers and, based on our earlier proof of concept, told them to remove the pilot, and to move the cargo boxes to the central fuselage. Manufacturers came up with metal aircraft, composite aircraft and all kinds of aircraft. But the ones that made the best proposal asked about converting an existing aircraft. It would lower the risk from many of the unknowns – this was from Pipistrel. They called in a colleague from Italy, at Fly Synthesis, brought an existing aircraft and, under their design authorization, converted it into the first MiniFreighter.
We are looking to stay with the aircraft that we have now – the One Series – because it is a nice aircraft. However, it has a two-stroke engine and we want to save on fuel, so we are considering a four-stroke engine, which is a little bit bigger, so then wing span and fuselage could grow with it. We started a project for a future aircraft – not needed in the immediate future – that will be a four-stroke MiniFreighter, probably carrying 12 boxes instead of eight. Otherwise, it will be very similar; taking all the learning points from the One Series and putting it into the Two Series. It’ll save us fuel – fuel costs are enormous and only rising – and ensure that that the system remains competitive and environmentally friendly.
Because I wanted my blended wing since being confronted with it in the university in the first place, we are also investing, on the side, in a blended wing design. When hydrogen comes as a viable propulsion or there is a breakthrough in batteries, then a blended wing body with our autopilot will win. However, the initial growth and scale-up is with the MiniFreighter One Series.
We think that, given novel concepts like ours, the distribution logic of air drops will change
The One Series can carry eight of your self-landing boxes each, and fly in groups of two to five craft at a time. Do they all get dispatched at once, or do they fly in a staggered formation?
We think that, given novel concepts like ours, the distribution logic of air drops will change. Eight boxes makes up 160kg of weight. Suppose we deliver 24 boxes (on three craft) to a village; that’s almost half a tonne of supplies. With the technology we have and as soon as the drop zone commanders and the Red Cross get used to it, we can program any delivery size to any village – always under the condition that we can reach it safely via a sparsely populated flight corridor. We will drop one batch on a drop zone, people will clear that drop zone and, half an hour later – after it’s clear – we will drop the next batch. We think that we will have four or five aircraft in operation at a time that will be managed from one central location – the forward operating base – with a crew of two or three pilots simultaneously.
Your drones have a 250km range, often needed in rural areas that have rough terrain and reduced/damaged infrastructure. How are the remote piloting and automated systems managed?
From takeoff to landing, everything is automated, including dropping in the drop zone. The role of the pilot-in-command is to manage the mission. They need to talk to the drop zone commander, establish contact and liaise about their situation. When the aircraft is three minutes out, and if the drop zone commander confirms the all-clear, then the pilot-in-command will allow the aircraft to continue with its automated approach. At 30 seconds out, the drop zone commander will once more confirm the area is clear for drop, and the only thing the pilot-in-command does is to then arm the system. If it is not clear then the system doesn’t get armed and the boxes cannot be dropped.
We could theoretically automate that process with sensors, radar and imaging, but it is in people we trust. So, the interaction between the drop zone commander and the pilot-in-command does the trick.
Transporting, loading, flying, managing and maintaining a fleet of drones in areas that are desperate for aid requires complex logistical and staffing management, especially with a network of up to 10 regional bases. How do you plan to expand globally and are you bringing in other sorts of consultations for this kind of global coverage?
First of all, there is information management: we need to know what is needed; which assets need to be moved where, whether it’s boxes or aircraft or crew or whatever; where the stuff is; and how we move it. It’s really an IT question, so we invest heavily in IT. We have a partnership with Accenture and with Microsoft for this. As we speak, on these first missions, we have a cradle of an IT system that can give us situational awareness, an awareness about our stocks, and whether things are serviceable.
It is extremely challenging getting the agreements with customs – customs formalities, export control etc
The second step is training and we have an agreement with the Kenyan Red Cross, who are very keen for this. We need to train people – such as in the folding of our special boxes – and of course provide the right training material. Here, the partnership with Accenture and Microsoft helps because everything will be available on a smartphone: how to drop a box, how to connect to someone who did that before, and so on. Then there is the actual movement of the stuff; it is extremely challenging getting the agreements with customs – customs formalities, export control etc. For that reason, we have partnered with Rhenus Logistics, and with them we’re developing a set of rules and framework agreements so that we are sure that local teams can pack containers on our behalf. There’s technology, logistics and information position to master; these are the pillars on which we are building such scalability. I have to say also that if you’re part of the Wings For Aid system, it’s a relatively closed community because it’s only open for like-minded people – a bit of a fellowship-based approach – for an organizational culture that we adhere to.
Are you or Wings For Aid expecting any significant changes or developments in 2024?
That we take a fellowship-based approach is really why Wings For Aid will succeed in reaching people in need anywhere within 72 hours in the coming years
We want grow our position, to build on what we have. The big challenge is to not innovate anymore, but just to stick to the course. One of the biggest mistakes we could do now is to keep innovating. We shouldn’t. We have innovated enough. This is the time to consolidate our position and grow. We now have SAIL II operational authorization for the Netherlands and the rest of Europe, and we are working towards SAIL III. We do that by consolidating the manuals and all the other documentation that is needed and really substantiating all the tests we have done so far. We expect authorization from our own country that’ll be SAIL III Beyond Visual Line of Sight shortly, and in 2024 we also want to expand to other regions. We operate under authorization which is European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA)-based, and 2024 will be an important year of recognition of that authorization worldwide.
Any final thoughts?
Wings For Aid is a mission-first organization. Our organizational culture matters, especially when, in the middle of the night, you are setting up an aircraft and wondering what do we do now, what do we do first. At Wings For Aid, there is only one answer: mission first. That is a cultural aspect that is really true and it is really what keeps people going. That we take a fellowship-based approach is really why Wings For Aid will succeed in reaching people in need anywhere within 72 hours in the coming years.