After A Disaster, These Inflatable Shelters Can Fall From The Sky

It’s not always easy to get resources where they need to be after a disaster. The LifeBox bypasses roads, allowing people to drop aid from the sky.

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, aid isn’t always lacking. But where roads are destroyed and bad weather foils transportation, the ability to distribute resources diminishes. That’s why Turkish industrial designer Adem Önalan has created LifeBox, an ingenious, inflatable contraption that can hold food, be air-dropped onto land or sea, and transform into a durable raft or shelter.


In August of 1999, Önalan was 9 years old and living in Istanbul when the 7.6 magnitude Izmit earthquake cracked open northern Turkey at 3 a.m. and killed more than 17,000 people. “It was really traumatic for me,” Önalan explains. “Nearly all of Istanbul lived outside for days in shelters that they built by themselves. We had also built a patchy shelter of our own.”

More than half a million people were left homeless then, and over the next several years, Önalan watched two more earthquakes tear through his country. In 2011, when the Van earthquake struck, Önalan remembers watching survivors on TV, stranded without supplies for days, in winter.

“After those impressions, I decided to work on needs of earthquake survivors,” Önalan writes in an email to Co.Exist. For his final graduation project from Middle East Technical University, Önalan collaborated with design consultancy Designum and organized a week of research with the largest domestic aid organizations in Turkey: the Turkish Red Crescent, the Search and Rescue Association (AKUT), and the Prime Ministry of Disaster and Emergency Management (AFAD). Önalan also arranged interviews with Van earthquake survivors, and identified four main problem areas they experienced with disaster relief in the aftermath.

Outside of a lack of survivor preparedness, and problems distributing aid, Önalan found that disaster relief providers were fond of tent cities, despite the fact that many survivors just wanted to put up a shelter near their destroyed homes. He also discovered that many of the distributed supplies, like electric heaters, weren’t user-oriented and often started fires. So, inspired by the idea of a life-jacket, Önalan decided to build an all-in-one kit that functioned both as a shelter and a pantry full of these customized goods. The result is the LifeBox.

LifeBox comes in three styles: Air, land, and water. LifeBox Air can be dropped from planes, and the outer layer serves as a parachute as well as a shelter covering. (“In a disaster scenario we do not have the right to waste,” Önalan says.) LifeBox Land functions similarly, but the shelter covering already comes attached to the inside of the box. LifeBox Water can transform into a raft when users pull on a tab, and CO2 canisters release gas into the inflatable. Once the LifeBox shelters are raised, they’re meant to last two weeks with enough supplies for four people each, and come with a labeling system so aid workers can keep track of resources.

Önalan also took transportation by foot into account. LifeBoxes can be carried by two people, and weigh about 165 pounds. A 50-foot-long truck can carry up to 192 LifeBoxes, and a C17 cargo plane can store 160.


The shelters have a surprising number of functionalities and perks as well. Once constructed, they can be connected to form larger rooms, and unlike most tent situations, each contains a shock-absorbent foam floor.

Önalan’s LifeBox recently won a prestigious Red Dot design award, but he’s continuing to develop a line of emergency products for disaster scenarios, in addition to submitting LifeBox to more international competitions. Oh, he’s applying to grad school, too.

“I started with a box idea, now it is getting bigger with more products,” Önalan says. “It seems that I am creating a brand.”

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.