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Airborne logistics and disaster management

18 December 2019

Airborne logistics and disaster management

Earlier this year, Swoop Aero commenced flight operations in Malawi to deliver essential medical supplies and lab samples to and from remote health facilities. Malawi is a country  hindered by natural disasters and extreme weather fluctuations, such as flooding, earthquakes and cyclones. During these flight operations, Swoop Aero has seen a clear potential use case of our system in disaster management. Our experience has revealed the structural vulnerability of the region to cope with natural disasters and yielded further ideas about unique ways in which a pre-existing logistics network of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or ‘drones’, could successfully contribute to alleviating the suffering caused by these events. An early investment in the network to facilitate the frictionless movement of healthcare will ensure a community is more resilient to the effects induced by environmental disasters. Swoop Aero is committed to the notion of universal access to healthcare for all; no matter what weather conditions or obstacles may stand in the way.

Building the Network: The Swoop Aero solution

In Malawi, use of the Swoop Aero enabled logistics network has transformed the provision of primary healthcare services and supplies. Through the deployment of drones, Swoop Aero has the  capability to deliver essential supplies to places previously out of the reach of the national healthcare system. This logistical network has been achieved through the establishment of a series of hub and spoke systems. This system centralizes the key resources and allows the drones to access any area within a 135km radius of the central base. To operate the drones, minimal on-the-ground infrastructure is needed. All that is required to run a hub is a laptop, two aircraft, a charger, and a clear space for landing. In Malawi, Swoop Aero has established multi-node hub and spoke systems, which have successfully connected remote communities.

In addition, these hubs can be operational within 72 hours, so adapt to geographical and logistical challenges  of delivery. They also have the capacity to operate off-grid in cases where the internet fails or is disconnected (i.e. in situations of natural disaster). These unique characteristics are pivotal in the context of a natural disaster. When environmental disasters strike, the first 72 hours are critical. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs defines this window as the ‘critical response time’. In theory, the hub and spoke system renders every community and town accessible through a reconfiguration of the central hub relative to the demand for medical supplies and treatments on any given day. The  speed and accuracy of the Swoop Aero system would facilitate the transportation of all emergency supplies, via the same network initially devised to transport medical goods routinely. The versatility of this system and ease of operations makes it suitable in cases of freak weather-related disasters.

The Swoop Aero solution also eradicates the need for a courier system as the drone can be operationalized by anyone with the simple press of a button, which directs it to its pre-selected destination via a GPS location tracking system. Furthermore, the Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) capabilities allow the Swoop Aero aircraft to land, and so to deliver and pickup supplies in multiple geographical and rough terrains. Using the air to reach these locations has the added benefit of enabling almost any infrastructure challenge to be overcome. As a  consequence, costs associated with drone deployment are less than other methods of disaster relief, and enable access to places that cannot otherwise be reached safely and quickly. Where landing is not possible or practical, essential supplies can also be dropped to where they are needed.

Malawi – a disaster-prone country

Malawi is highly vulnerable to the impacts of extreme weather events. This is due to a number of factors:

  •  Its location along the great African Rift Valley
  • Rapid population growth and uneven population distribution
  • Unsustainable urbanisation
  • Climate change and variability
  • Environmental degradation due to the primary economic industry being agriculture and subsistence farming

Floods account for 48 per cent of major disasters across the country. The expected frequency and severity of these natural disasters is likely to rise in the coming decades, which is forecast to bring unprecedented damage and destruction. To date, the resulting impact of natural disasters has stifled development at every level and compounded socio-economic issues that hinder the nation’s ability to effectively bounce back. Issues include rising levels of poverty, internal population displacement, increased rates of disease outbreaks and a deterioration of structural capabilities to effectively deal with these issues.  In 2018, a Malawi Economic Vulnerability and Disaster Risk Assessment was conducted by the World Bank to better understand the socio-economic effects of disasters. The analytical study indicated that annual flood damage in the Shire River Basin resulted in an average loss of 0.7% of GDP ($9 million) per year.

As the use of drones have proven effective in the delivery of medical supplies, there is room for the use of the technology in delivering other supplies in the context of a disasters.

How Swoop Aero can contribute to disaster management

“Drones overall will be more impactful than I think people recognise, in positive ways, to help society.”

Bill Gates

The deployment of drones as part of the healthcare supply efforts,  can ensure a community is more resilient in cases of natural disaster. The versatility and multipurpose function of the network means it can rapidly respond when a disaster strikes. Swoop Aero’s solution provides the following core capabilities, which can prove crucial in disaster management scenarios:

  •  Fast deployment with low impact infrastructure
  • Long-range capability to deliver supplies, or assess large areas
  • Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) capabilities to enable us to reach diverse and difficult environments
  • Dropping critical supplies
  • Mapping and aerial monitoring pre- and post-disaster

The multipurpose function of technology in disaster management is a huge advantage. Indeed, fit-for-purpose technology should also have the technical capacity to facilitate multiple operations at any given moment – for example, the Swoop Aero system could effectively map a flooded disaster area whilst on a mission to transporting medical aid supplies from one geographical point to another.  There is great potential to expand operations to encompass further disaster related activities. Furthermore, the foresight given to the disaster management process is demonstrated in the inclusion of drones at every stage of the disaster cycle:

  • Preparedness: Pre-disaster aerial mapping
  • Response: Immediate Aerial monitoring post- disaster for damage evaluation
  • Recovery: Disaster logistics and cargo delivery
  • Mitigation: Post-disaster aerial assessment

It has been acknowledged by multiple sources, that the use of a drone based logistics system “can prove crucial for both survival and improvement of daily living conditions”. Bill Gates has affirmed that “drones overall will be more impactful than I think people recognise, in positive ways, to help society”. As the case of Malawi shows, Swoop Aero has already established the infrastructure and technology to effectively deal with one of the crucial effects of a disaster – primary health care access and delivery of medical supplies. In the future, we will seek to deploy the technology to overcome the other critical aspects of a disaster situation, such as rapid response, aid delivery and post disaster mapping.