The cardboard box that could change disaster response

Wings for Aid

Dropping eight 20kg boxes into an area the size of a tennis court from 300ft is impressive. But the fact that each box carried eggs and not one cracked is even better.

Wings for Aid is the result of what happens when you ask charities what they need to provide humanitarian aid in hard-to-reach areas.

Traditionally, the Silicon Valley model for launching a startup stipulates that you find a technology, gauge what products you can make with it, and then work out your costs and total addressable market. Netherlands-based Wings for Aid has flipped that on its head. Founder Barry Koperberg instead came up with the concept after speaking with charities and educational institutions like the Red Cross and the Dutch and German aviation institutes. He wanted to find a way to reach people anywhere with today’s commercially available technology.

Out of the vision came a charity, a cardboard box and drone aircraft – aka ‘MiniFreighter’ – design that, once combined, can deliver 160kg of aid per flight per aircraft. And, as noted, it can drop its eight-box payload onto an area the size of a tennis court.

Pieter van Norel, OEM representative, Wings for Aid tells us: “Military technology is usually so far ahead and humanitarian use cases come some way behind it. Barry wanted to create something that was humanitarian first and foremost. So, this project, from the beginning phase up until now and in the future, it will be developed hand-in-hand with humanitarian organisations.

Getting the drone aircraft flying

Wings for Aid will work as the Original Equipment Manufacturer and the leasing company. It has manufacturing partners that make various parts of the system, from which the company then buys the parts before completing final assembly. This makes Wings for Aid the fleet owner and essentially the OEM of the drone aircraft. The company will then work with its humanitarian partners, such as Red Cross and World Food Programme to select local operator partners who will use the system out in the field.

“We as Wings for Aid don’t operate the drone aircraft in the field, but we have very good operating partners and logistics partners such as Rhenus Logistics. The logistics giant helps us get the system from Europe out to wherever the local operator is in the world,” says van Norel. Wings For Aid is also setting up a base in Kenya.

Not operating their drone aircraft means that it will fly under permissions sought by the local operators with the regulator relevant to the disaster zone. “Working with local partners means they have the experience on the ground in that area,” says van Norel. The idea is to always have at least two drone aircraft flying in a zone for redundancy and capacity reasons.

We asked the FAA what it would take for a system like Wings for Aid’s to operate in a hypothetical disaster zone in the US. The agency told us: “To ensure a safe environment for the operation of disaster relief aircraft, the FAA will establish a Temporary Flight Restriction [TFR] to restrict non-essential flights in the area.

“Public safety, first responders and organisations that respond to natural disasters may be eligible for expedited approval to operate within the TFR through an FAA Special Governmental Interest [SGI] process. To apply for an approval through the SGI process, the public or civil agency/organisation must be an existing Part 107 Remote Pilot with a current certificate or must have an existing Certificate of Waiver or Authorisation [COA] or airworthy certificated aircraft. These approvals are coordinated through the FAA’s System Operations Support Center who can provide immediate approval, if necessary.”

However, the agency points out, drone flights involving deliveries, whether for profit or not, generally require advanced approvals to operate and are not eligible under the SGI waiver process.

The big task facing the team is registering the drone aircraft, says van Norel. Currently, the company has an operational authorisation from The Netherlands. It also has special permissions to fly in areas of Germany, South Africa and Kenya. Wings for Aid is working with the German aerospace institute and EASA to develop an authorisation framework for aircraft systems such as the MiniFreighter worldwide. It is also in the process of getting a tail number in either The Netherlands or a local country. “We still need to define what the best certification and registration strategy for the drone aircraft is,” adds van Norel. “But with regards to the tail sign, we will get it eventually, it is only a matter of when not if.”

The box

If you’re ever at a show where Wings for Aid is displaying, chances are you noticed its stand. The aerodynamically designed cardboard boxes (pictured above) have a tendency to stand out amongst the silicon models and free pens. As noted in the intro, the boxes (of which the drone aircraft can carry eight per flight) each have a payload of 20kg and can be loaded with anything that is required.

“It contains no other materials, just cardboard. The philosophy is to reduce complexity and cost, whilst making a product that is recyclable,” explains van Norel. “If we drop the boxes then people can reuse them for whatever solution they want. The box itself has a very cool feature; when it drops out of the drone aircraft, the flaps will go up and act as air brakes, reducing the air speed by a factor of three.” This means a ground impact of about 40-50km/h. The box also includes a small crumple zone built into the bottom to prevent damage to the payload.

No shortage of customers

The increasingly chaotic geopolitical environment coupled with climate change means there is no shortage of use cases. “There are a lot of terrible events going on in the world and we have so much technology and so much knowledge which could be used to help. I see a lot of it is used on the military market, of course military is not all negative, but to develop something specifically for the humanitarian requirements is important. It is not only wars but also natural disasters too. If you look at the recent flooding globally, our product is perfectly suited to providing relief in those areas.”

Disaster relief is a time-sensitive field. The UN’s Emergency Response Preparedness approach for example, was devised to speed up response times. It also puts the question of money in the backseat – which is no bad thing for an aerospace startup trying to establish itself.

Wings for Aid is not ready to disclose certification costs and unit prices. However, the drone aircraft final unit price will not be “ridiculous” because of restrictions set by the sector, which say that all humanitarian actors need to operate at market-conforming price points. According to van Norel, this is directly intended to prevent the very high costing seen in the military sector.

The company is hopeful it will begin leasing drone aircraft to operators within the next few months. As well its founder, Wings for Aid is also now funded by the Dutch government as a startup. But van Norel says future funding is set to come from leasing contracts. “We will get our money from leasing contracts with local partners, who fly for Red Cross or World Food Programme and that is how we get the triangle operating,” he says.