People trapped in war-torn or disaster-ravaged areas desperately need food and medical supplies. But how do you get it to them?
Nigel Gifford thinks he has an answer: an edible drone. Gifford, founder and chairman of two-year-old Windhorse Aerospace, based in Yeovil, England, is developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known drones, that can not only deliver supplies to civilians, but also are partially made of items they can eat.
“Terrorizing populations has become one of the most effective methods of modern hybrid warfare,” he says. “This is a way to send people the food and nutrition they need.”
It all started during a chat over coffee with a Royal Air Force officer in Bath who, unofficially, was trying to get food to residents of Aleppo in Syria. How would Gifford, an aeronautics engineer and adventure enthusiast, who sold Ascenta, his solar-powered drone company, to Facebook in 2014 for $20 million, go about the task? Gifford responded that he’d use a UAV and make it out of food.
Afterwards, as he thought about it, he says, “I realized how sensible that was.” Since the drones would be unmanned, no pilots would be at risk of, say, getting shot down. Being drones, the vehicles also could land in very tight spots and end up in the right place with a high degree of accuracy.
Gifford then set about the business of finding a way to create a drone, which he named Pouncer, that not only carried food for people and animals in its cargo, but also was made partly out of the stuff. Central to the effort was finding hearty foods able to withstand the voyage. Example: Pasta by thickness and weight, according to Gifford, has one-tenth the tensile strength of aluminum. Also, all food would have to be culturally and religiously acceptable to recipients. “A lot of agencies deliver things the people won’t eat,” says Gifford.
A self-sustaining for-profit, he figured, would be more efficient than a nonprofit, so he decided to go the former route. Customers would be NGOs and aid agencies.
Of course, development has taken longer than Gifford had thought. And some of the biggest challenges haven’t been technical. Example: getting certified to fly, since drone safety is a matter of some concern these days for regulators. “They need to know that anything that flies through a country’s air space is safe no matter what it’s made of,” he says. Similarly, aid agencies have to be sure the drones will be easy to use and reliable. Gifford and his team also are still testing out the food–for example, experimenting with vacuum-packed packaging.
The plan is to build three models, all launched from either an aircraft or from the ground, that can carry different weights and travel different distances. The largest aircraft will have a wingspan of nine feet. So far, Gifford and his team have flown several prototypes made mainly of wood, which eventually will be replaced by food–anything from pasta to dried meat. He hopes his drones will be fully functioning by the end of the year.