By building on the experience data gathered and by establishing partnerships with local operators, humanitarian logistics company Wings for Aid is now anticipating its market introduction in the spring of 2022. It plans to deploy the first batch of five MiniFreighters in the course of 2022 and help emergency organisations bridge the crucial last mile in disaster-stricken and remote areas of Africa.

Barry Koperberg, founder and general manager of Wings for Aid, details their plans to Lakshmi Ajay from Logistics Update Africa.

Which regions in Africa do you feel are most conducive to having an active drone ecosystem for providing humanitarian logistics and relief? What specific problems could they solve?
Our research shows that, not surprisingly, African regions that are faced with flooding and drought have the most benefit. We see that drones can restore access while roads are inaccessible. From a total cost point of view, some studies show that drones can help to keep stock at the regional or district level and only distribute on precise demand. Drone technology helps here because the efficient shipment size can be smaller than a truck. So while a truckload seems always more economic, this is not the case for all modalities. Moreover, we see some interesting studies that show that the ‘ultimate last mile’ (for instance, from off-loading a boat towards the final destination village) is worth considering in terms of time, cost and risk.

How much of a network does Wings for Aid have in Africa currently and which governments and local partners do you work with there?
We are building the network as we speak, anticipating market introduction in the spring of 2022. We have established contacts in South Africa and Kenya for this. Kenya has a strong regional function and is close to, for instance South Sudan and Somalia, where humanitarian logistics are complex and challenging. South Africa has a strong engineering legacy and can help to establish the much-needed standards for efficient, safe, and compliant full-size drone aircraft operations. Wings For Aid will strive to provide input for an online, full-size drone aircraft compliance system.

Which drones or models will be used by Wings for Aid in Africa for humanitarian logistics? What are the wingspan, payload capacities, and travel range of each?
We will use our remotely controller MiniFreighter 8/500FW, a full-size drone aircraft with a wingspan of 9.5 meters and a payload of 160kg. The ferry range is 500km, so the operating range is 250km as we drop and return.

A view of the MiniFreighter 8500FW

You mentioned that temperature-controlled transportation can also be done via the remotely controlled MiniFreighter. What other items can be transported via this system and for which other use cases?
We can deliver any essential commodity that fits our box of 40x40x60cm while keeping in mind the volume needed for the crumple zone for precious items. This could be medicines and medical equipment but also generators and lifeboats, for instance. It all depends on the use case. We always need a drop safe zone of about 150x150m. We expect that over time, this zone will be smaller as our droppings get more precise.

Which are some of the local partnerships/customers/ aid agencies or networks that you are working with currently for deploying the freighter and for which use-cases?
We have established contact with the World Food Programme and the Red Cross (IFRC). Once we have validated all systems, they will decide on the best use cases. We all need to build experience data here to make better decisions. We have also established partnerships with local operators, which will be announced later.

How many total freighters will be deployed from 2022 based on agreements? What kind of quick response timings have you achieved in the test runs of the mini-freighters?
We plan to deploy the first batch of five MiniFreighters in the course of 2022. The response time largely depends on the setup time of the Forward Operating Base, which should be within 250km of the delivery areas.

Could these drones help out during any natural calamity? Have you tested them for use during a calamity?
As a result of a field test funded by the World Food Program Innovation Accelerator Programme, we have learned that full-size cargo drones can especially help during calamities such as flooding and earthquakes. At the same time, we cannot fly during thunder and we need to establish a base within 250km.

What are some of the challenges and and advantages that you find while working in Africa?
We see a colorful continent that is eager to grow and innovate. We also see creativity in finding solutions for problems that arise. At the same time, ground logistics can be troublesome, including the documentation of imports and exports. With our logistics partner Rhenus Logistics, we invest heavily in supporting systems and procedures to get this right.

What can government agencies and other stakeholders in the region do to accelerate the process of creating an enabling ecosystem for drones? Could you point out any good policies or practices by governments in Africa that are boosting this ecosystem in any way?
We see that governments that give room to their aviation authorities to facilitate experiments strive. A good example is the Lake Victoria challenge where NGOs, manufacturers, and authorities work together to gain experience data. The key is to allow for numerous safe experiments, to build experience and data. This entails the allocation of time slots on airfields and the installation of segregated corridors for projects. The best authorities demand from all participants to sit together at the end of the project, to really understand what went well and what should be improved.

What kind of funding is required for developing drone technology and what funding challenges do you face while operating in Africa-Europe?
We see the need for early-stage technology investments to get drone technology ready for use. At the same time, investments are needed in experimental projects that bring us the data we all need. That is technical and especially data on community acceptance and involvement. Above all, governments need to invest in the training and equipment of their aviation authorities to work on a case-by-case, risk-based methodology. It is not easy to change from rule-based to principle-based and the responsible staff also need to have the tools at hand to evaluate the quality of ConOps (Concept of Operations) and operational risk analyses (SORAs). The good news is that such investments will pay off commercially, eventually, because this is a fast-growing industry for the years to come.

What is the current cost of deploying drones for humanitarian logistics?
The cost of our MiniFreighter per delivery is, as a rule of thumb, comparable or lower than a helicopter, depending on the use case. Wings For Aid will act as fleet owner and OEM, the actual operational cost will be a combination of that with the cost of the local operating partner, holding the ROC and operating the aircraft.

This interview was originally published in Logistics Update Africa' November - December 2021 issue.

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