Facebook’s Drone Creators Are Planning an Edible Humanitarian Aid Aircraft
A disposable drone you can eat on a one-way trip to disaster areas.
Image: Windhorse Aerospace
"When the sh*t hits the fan, and you can't get food or supplies to people for days or weeks, that's where we can get in with Pouncer."
Pouncer is an autonomous air vehicle, and the idea of ex-British Army veteran Nigel Gifford. Off the back of his success selling the Ascenta (now Aquila) drone to Facebook for $20 million in 2014, Gifford now wants to revolutionize the $28 billion humanitarian aid delivery market with a cheap, disposable, and potentially entirely edible drone.
Deployed in numbers from the back of a Hercules C-130 transport aircraft flying at 25,000ft, the Pouncer is designed to be filled to the brim with vacuum-packed food and medical supplies and delivered to areas of need fundamentally differently to current parachute systems. Gifford told Motherboard over the phone that the proposed Pouncer solves two key problems in humanitarian aid delivery: accuracy and economy.
"So here we are with a piece of disruptive technology," said Gifford. "But what are we going to do with it? It needs a purpose. What can this do than can't be done already?
"Well, it can react very quickly to need. If you've got a disaster, the Pouncer aircraft can be introduced and react to that within hours, and accurately. Where the infrastructure on the ground is cut off, or the airspace is cut off, Pouncer will go straight to the heart of the problem. This doesn't mean that other forms of air delivery are now defunct. They're exceptionally good, but only when the conditions are right," he said.
Not only is each Pouncer potentially capable of delivering a 50kg (110lb) payload of medical supplies or food to an accuracy of around 10 metres from 40km (25 miles) away, Gifford said that the drone can also be broken down and used as fuel, with the lightweight wooden airframe suitable for starting fires and building shelters. Once successful flights have been completed with the current airframe, Gifford said that he may even start looking at replacing the wing structures with food. "Crunchie bars on the wings," he wondered.
On deployment, an onboard navigation system would guide Pouncer to glide towards the target area, similar to askydiver wearing a wingsuit. Just before landing, a small parachute is deployed at low altitude, delivering Pouncer to the target with high accuracy.
Gifford gave the 2014 Nepalese earthquake as a perfect example of Pouncer's potential, where villages high up in the Himalayas were cut off from supplies for weeks. Pouncer drones could have been deployed along the Indian/Nepalese border from aircraft loaded in India, he said, and could have reached their inaccessible targets faster and cheaper than traditional methods of aid delivery, packing more supplies than traditional Humanitarian Daily Ration (HDR) kits. With the ability to be deployed from range and altitude, the Pouncer is also less affected by weather conditions than traditional parachute deliveries. Pilots of the transport aircraft carrying the Pouncer vehicles can also stay out of danger zones, too.
With today's smaller, cheaper guidance technology, Gifford said there are almost no boundaries to what Pouncer could be constructed out of or could carry. "I walked past the coffee in the supermarket, and there's all this coffee vacuum packed into solid blocks. You could build a house out of that! So now we hold a patent for building aircraft out of food components."
But Pouncer is still in the proof of concept phase; TRL4 to be exact. Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs), as defined by NASA, range from one through to nine. To be a viable product, Pouncer needs to reach TRL9, the technology readiness level where the actual system is "flight proven." Gifford and his Somerset-based company, Windhorse Aerospace, have so far self-funded £350,000 ($460,000) towards the project so far, and plan to launch a crowdfunding programme within the next few months. If this is successful, Gifford said the Pouncer could be in the air by next April.