High-tech drones and cardboard boxes for the future of humanitarian aid
Hello, dear technology enthusiasts! I must tell you about a recent experience that had us on the edge of our seats. The days were full of tension, little sleep, adrenaline and plenty of pride. The protagonists of this story? Our Dutch friends from Wings for Aid and Sven Lorenz and Martin Laubner from the DLR Institute of Flight Systems. Together, we conquered the skies in a way that would have sounded like science fiction just a few years ago. ##markend##
A first-hand report on flight tests in South Africa
After a 20-hour journey, we finally arrived at the test site near the southernmost tip of South Africa. There stood the unmanned 'MiniFreighter' aircraft from Wings for Aid. However, 'test site' may be a bit of an exaggeration. The simple farm featured a take-off and landing strip made of earth, mud and stones, lined with bushes – and cattle. There are barely any structures and buildings, and the only infrastructure and equipment around was that which Wings for Aid brought with them – and one old, corrugated iron shed that doubtless had plenty of stories to tell. We brought a tent to protect us from the sun and rain. Inside, we set up our control centre, consisting of a ground control station, several laptops, a weather station and equipment providing the data links to the drone.
What may seem like adverse circumstances at first glance were, in fact, ideal conditions for an automated flight beyond visual line of sight. After weeks at sea in a transport container, the unmanned aircraft arrived, ready to be put into operation for the first time in South Africa. After the necessary inspections, preflight tests, briefings and a strong cup of coffee, we began preparing for the first flight – an exciting moment!
With a take-off mass of over 600 kilograms, this drone represents a new, larger generation of transport systems. And there is something unique about this one: it is specifically designed to deliver supplies to people in hard-to-reach areas. Specialised cardboard boxes have been developed for this purpose, which can hold more than 20 kilograms of payload and are equipped with aerodynamic brake flaps and a crumple zone. One of these 'MiniFreighter' aircraft can carry and drop a total of eight of these boxes. Several drones working together will to be able to autonomously transport a large amount of supplies in the future.
We wish you could have seen the Wings for Aid aircraft handling the unmade and unpaved runways: not just once, but over and over again! During hour-long flights, the drone proved its endurance, reliably dropped its cargo and even mastered the initial challenges associated with operating beyond visual line of sight – an important step towards future autonomous air freight transport.
A technology with the potential to become a real game-changer, especially in times of climate change
We also expect the frequency of natural disasters and severe weather events to increase, so we need to develop efficient and rapidly deployable solutions to support the people affected. This technology can supply remote places and even individual families with significant amounts of vital aid, even when traditional transport routes are impassable.
"These drones, which would only fly over sparsely populated areas and below regular air traffic, could represent an innovative and cost-effective transport solution," explains Sven Lorenz, who leads the DLR project 'Automated Low Altitude Air Delivery – Cross Country' (ALAADy-CC). The flight tests with Wings for Aid are just one part of a series of exciting research activities at the DLR Institute of Flight Systems that make up this project.
We deal with, among other things, methods and technologies for flight testing innovative larger drone configurations that cannot be found on the current market. We are faced with the question of how to certify and safely operate these unmanned aircraft systems in the future without driving up development costs. Safety, as in all areas of aviation, is our top priority. However, at the same time, drones must be more cost-efficient than manned aircraft.
Fortunately, new methods for assurance and certification are being developed at the Institute. Unmanned aircraft systems of course have the significant advantage that no humans are on board. It is therefore much easier to allow drones fly in places where there is little other air traffic and very few people, as was the case for our flight campaign in South Africa.
As it still requires many personnel to operate these drones today, we are researching technologies to increase the level of autonomy of these systems. Drones should seamlessly integrate into the logistics of humanitarian aid, with as little human interaction as possible.
Would you like to learn more? Take a look at our project Drones4Good. In this project, the Department of Unmanned Aircraft in Braunschweig is researching how to equip a drone with safety-critical artificial intelligence that will enable it to drop humanitarian goods automatically in the future. Today, a human operator is still needed, who is located either on site or who at least receives real-time video from the delivery target location.