Three weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, aid workers are still struggling to deliver supplies like water and medicine–and if bad roads, fuel shortages, and downed power lines have made it difficult to get anywhere on the island, some remote areas are still completely inaccessible.
When the founder of a new drone delivery startup read about the challenges in areas where bridges have washed away and roads are impassable, he decided to make a trip to the island. The startup’s new technology–which will eventually drop packages on drones from commercial flights–isn’t ready for deployment yet. But the team wanted to bring the company’s expertise to the disaster zone, using its proprietary navigation system to target and track deliveries.
On flights this week on a chartered Cessna 208, a plane typically used for skydiving, Joel Ifill and his team are dropping care packages (you can donate one here) attached to parachutes to people in inaccessible areas. They were granted emergency authorization from the FAA to make the flights.
“If you’ve ever seen Hunger Games, they have that little package attached to a parachute–that’s what we’re doing out in Puerto Rico,” Ifill says. “Our specialty is we have some software running off my laptop that helps us plan out where to do deliveries, compensate for wind, and gives us a satellite map overhead so we know where we are and can confirm our deliveries.”
The need in some areas is acute. A local politician reported that in a part of his district called Utuado, where a bridge was destroyed, people on one side were screaming for help–and while those on the other side could see and hear them, there was no way to reach them. Some roads won’t be fully cleared for weeks. “The federal government has a lot of capacity, but there’s always people who fall through the cracks, and we couldn’t sit by,” Ifill says.
Ifill and his team plan to deliver both in Utuado and in Las Marias, another inland area that is currently difficult to reach. The packages will be filled with donations coordinated by Melisa Lopez Franzen, a state senator from Minnesota originally from Puerto Rico. On a flight donated by Delta, water, food, first aid supplies, diapers, and other necessities flew from Minnesota to San Juan. Volunteers are repackaging the items for the parachute drops, targeting some of the hardest to reach areas on the island. “We want to make sure that it’s going to the most dire areas where they really need clean water and supplies,” she says.
Ultimately, Ifill’s startup, called Dash, could make similar deliveries in disaster situations on a larger scale. The company’s one-way delivery drones can be deployed from planes flying overhead, making it possible to reach areas even when planes can’t land, and sidestepping backlogs at ports (in Puerto Rico, around 10,000 shipping containers of emergency supplies were stranded temporarily at the port after Hurricane Maria because bad roads, a lack of fuel, and other challenges meant that many trucks couldn’t make deliveries).
The system is designed to launch packages from a plane’s cargo doors or from “cargo pod” doors next to a plane’s wheels, and then use GPS and small fins to land within a few meters of a destination. A computer controller will launch the packages in much the same way that bombs launch from military planes–something that Ifill previously worked on for the government when he graduated during the height of the recession and couldn’t find another job in engineering.
“I’m a pacifist by nature, and the only job I could get was making smart bombs,” he says. “I literally just felt terrible every day going to work to make missiles that I knew were going to be headed straight to Iraq and Afghanistan. So that’s really what inspired me. What really can we do with this technology?”
The startup plans to use its technology for routine deliveries as well. For someone living in rural Montana, hundreds of miles from the nearest airport, next-day package delivery might be prohibitively expensive. But if flights regularly pass overhead en route from San Francisco to New York, those packages could be dropped from the sky. (Even though the drone is one-way and disposable, the system is still less expensive than current express delivery in remote areas, Ifill says.) An early version of the technology is ready now, and in 18 months the company expects to have FAA certification for its next iteration.
Emergency relief will also be a focus for the company. “We are happy to see the response and positive impact here on the ground and don’t intend to stop,” Ifill wrote via email from Puerto Rico. “It’s three weeks after Maria and I can get a pallet shipped next day to San Juan, but I can’t get a box 30 miles inland to Utuado. We don’t see this need is going away anytime soon here or in other locations.”
While his technology finishes development and certification, he wanted to take a low-tech approach to helping. “This is a call to action,” he says. “This is not really about us or our technology, but about using innovation to help our fellow citizens. . . .This is about stepping up to the plate.”