Humanitarian relief can be a frustrating, dangerous task. Even the best-intentioned donors can face hostile conditions or less than honorable intermediaries. Two years ago, the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria issued a report describing how corrupt officials in Djibouti defrauded its programs of millions of dollars in cash, medicines and health supplies. Another well-organized theft ring, the group found, was operating across several African countries stealing anti-malarial drugs from supply chains and reselling them in the black market. Also two years ago, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) discovered that inefficiencies in the supply chain had left a backlog of bed nets languishing in Nigerian warehouses, giving corrupt officials more time and opportunity to steal them.
The truth is that while the phrase "humanitarian relief" may sound grand and abstract, in practice it usually involves transporting specific items by people to other people who need them. And each person who comes into contact with these sometimes valuable goods can potentially speed up -- or sabotage -- the journey. The supply chains for these goods extend from urban depots to remote villages, often crossing myriad checkpoints along the way. This makes it easy for warlords and corrupt officials to delay or divert vital supplies for their own gain while depriving the starving and sick.
Aid workers are often put in harm's way. In Darfur, a wave of killings, kidnappings, and intimidation was aimed at stopping aid during the peak of the conflict in 2006. In the years since, the violence has forced relief teams to retreat or cease operations.
Convoys supplying the isolated Yemeni region of Dammaj earlier this year were attacked by rebels, killing many workers. But even the absence of hostilities does not mean that aid will reach its intended recipients. In Pakistan's Punjab province, desperate crowds stranded by floods in 2010 looted trucks bringing food.
Thugs, crowds, and sleazy officials are just one kind of obstacle. Rough terrain, foul weather, fuel shortfalls, warfare, and inefficiencies also deplete aid flow. Ironically, such barriers shift the incentives for aid delivery towards larger, more populated centers where security tends to be stronger. The result is a skewing of aid that encourages migration from small villages into the larger towns and aid depots -- exposing the already vulnerable recipients to crime, trafficking, and illness along the way. And each time a cargo is delayed, tens, hundreds, or thousands of people may perish. Reverberating across oceans, all these losses and inefficiencies undermine donors' faith in the aid process overall.
But what if you could leapfrog over these obstacles? The technological versatility of airborne drones, the flying robots that are already transforming warfare, also has the potential to revolutionize how humanitarian aid is delivered worldwide. Now used by the U.S. military to conduct surgical, sniper-like missile strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, drones have many capabilities that are easily applicable to peaceful pursuits as well. Just this past December, the U.S. Marine Corps used an unmanned helicopter to resupply troops in Afghanistan for the first time -- demonstrating that drone technology is also feasible for the transport of cargo.
The versatility of these machines is already lending itself to novel uses. Drones have begun to soar over disaster zones to assess damage. Sensor-laden Global Hawks have flown over Haiti after its devastating 2010 earthquake and peered into the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan after the March 2011 tsunami. The U.S. space agency NASA flew Predator drones over California to assess wildfire damage. Commercial interest in using drones for civilian use is also stirring. Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, aspires to deploy specially adapted cargo drones that could cut shipping costs closer to those of sea-borne freight.
Emboldened by the robots' versatility, a new movement is emerging to adapt them for international aid. An expanding range of entrepreneurs is crafting prototypes and sketching out plans to use drones to distribute medicines or conduct emergency functions. A start-up company called aria (for "autonomous roadless intelligent arrays") wants to supply rural Africa with a drone skyway network run by aid groups. Leaving drone development to deep-pocket manufacturers, aria is creating "rules of the air" by which relief groups would share the skies. By establishing a community of drone deployers, aria hopes to launch a new strategy of fighting poverty from the air.
Aria is part of a broader movement initiated by Matternet, a company that is also pushing plans for automated, airborne delivery systems powered by sophisticated technology. Along similar lines, Vijay Kumar, an engineering expert at the University of Pennsylvania, riveted audiences at a recent TED Conference with his astonishing on-stage presentation of how computer-linked squadrons of small drones can be used as first responders in catastrophe situations, autonomously executing search-and-rescue operations using onboard sensors. As Kumar envisions it, the drones can be programmed to take action individually or in groups, acquiring real-time data that can be used to build a broad picture of the area in question.
The work of these entrepreneurs points to a future in which waves of aid drones might quickly deliver a peaceful "first strike" capacity of food and medicines to disaster areas. By skipping over rough, roadless terrain, and overflying choke points where bandits and corrupt officials rule, relief drones could offer direct point-to-point delivery of medicines and essential supplies. On-board video could verify that the aid has been dropped to target recipients and provide real-time feedback on ground conditions.
As technology constantly betters the drones' capabilities, ranges, and payloads, it's possible to imagine even more creative methods of aid delivery. In the future, intercontinental drone trains could be launched from donor nations, auto-navigate across oceans by GPS, deliver an airdrop to those in need, and return home. Some could land at specified drone ports where they could be offloaded for onward delivery. NGOs running local "drone fleets" with smaller vehicles could dispatch supplies directly to villages.
While the cargo capacity of early generations of drones is likely to be very modest compared to conventional means, the drones' speed and point-to-point ability can already make them valuable emergency channels for specialized, time-sensitive loads. For example, AIDS patients in developing countries need access to a constant supply of anti-retroviral drugs, whose supplies must be managed accurately to assure that the right pills are available at the right time and in adequate quantities. Missing pills allow HIV to regenerate quickly. If supplies of a particular drug run out, a special mission drone might be launched from a depot, loaded with the needed medicines, and deliver them directly to trusted recipients to tide over patient needs until traditional channels are restored.