Wings For Aid (WFA) is a humanitarian drone organisation that governments, or charities like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), can call on in times of crisis. Its mission, according the WFA website, is to “reach people in otherwise unreachable areas, [and to] bridge the last mile to anyone, anywhere”.
WFA was founded in 2014 in the Netherlands, and has been preparing – financially, technologically and legally – to go live ever since.
In mid-December, for example, news emerged that the organisation was working in collaboration with corrugated packaging specialists Smurfit Kappa.
The product of this relationship was a biodegradable, eco-friendly box that can be dropped with a high degree of accuracy from heights of 100m.
The box’s airbrake system and cushioning meant that, in WFA’s tests, the organisation’s drones could successfully drop containers of 30 eggs with no damage to the produce.
The lack of a parachute braking system also means that the box has a much greater degree of accuracy in regards to where it lands.
The last several years have also seen backing from the likes of the Dutch government and ICRC. Most recently, WFA fought off stiff competition from other startups to win the inaugural sustainability award from The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA). Sponsored by CHAMP Cargosystems, the award came with a $15,000 (£11,468) boost to WFA’s funding.
Commercial Drone Professional sat down for an interview with Wings For Aid founder and general manager Barry Koperberg to discuss the tricky process of getting such an organisation off the ground, what drone technology WFA uses, and when exactly it plans to be in business.
Koperberg describes himself prior to WFA as a business consultant. “I worked on change management and public-private partnerships,” he says. “But then I listened to the radio, and heard about a logistical problem that humanitarian activists were facing.”
He describes hearing that the activists in question were looking for a solution to a problem they were facing in Somalia. Delivering aid packages to the country was proving expensive by truck, and risky by helicopter.
But Koperberg himself faced problems of his own if he wanted to help – namely, that he had no experience working with drones. Nor did he have experience working with charities.
He laughs at the serendipity of WFA’s birth: “I did have strong ties with universities and a lot of companies, because of my work with public-private partnerships, but that was more general.
“It was only because the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands showed me the latest [drone technology] for other reasons, and because of the radio interview, that I made the connection between the two.”
So how did a man with no prior experience of drones or humanitarian work go on to create WFA?
“I never work alone,” Koperberg says. “Whenever I have an idea my strategy is always to call up one, two, three, four or five people and check what they think. This includes people in technology, politics, funding, logistics and industrial design.”
He continues: “It’s nice to have an idea, but you need friends to check whether it makes sense, and to sharpen it, really make it good. So WFA is really a team effort.”
Competitors or colleagues?
This theme of friendship and co-operation is not exclusive to those working within the WFA network, as Koperberg calls it. WFA is a business, not a charity. Despite this, it has a solid relationship with and respect for what would usually be considered its competitors.
“There are similar initiatives out there,” Koperberg explains, “but we are all unique.”
The differences between WFA and its colleagues, as Koperberg refers to them, mean there is little competition.
“One of the big initiatives that everyone knows is Zipline,” he continues. “They are very good colleagues but we see them as very far ahead of us because they have many flight hours already. But the thing is, it’s very small parcels. Where they work with packages of 1-2kg, we started with packages of 20kg.
“Then we have colleagues like Astral Aviation in Kenya. We know them very well. They want to introduce the FlyOx cargo drone. But the FlyOx cannot drop parcels as we can.
“Our combination of a bespoke cargo drone plus the full-carton delivery box with airbrake technology is unique to us so far.
“And we always try to make it biodegradable. We won a sustainability award in Budapest, so the industry confirms this is the way forward.”
The Wings For Aid drones
After two or three years of securing funding, it came time to think about the drones themselves. WFA brought in Slovenian company Pipistrel, famous for the world’s first fully electric two-seater aircraft back in 2007. The company has specialised in light aircraft since 1989, but has been testing the waters of the commercial drone market in recent years.
“They are our current manufacturing partner for our custom drone, which is basically a remotely piloted aircraft,” says Koperberg.
The process of fine-tuning this technology, he adds, will be an ongoing one.
“In the next five years we foresee that a lot of detect-and-avoid technology will be developed,” Koperberg predicts. “That will enable us to fly in formation. You already see this in smaller drones, but not in larger drones. If one of our drones has a payload of 160kg, the aircraft can be 400-500kg. That is significant. We suspect that radar-based detect-and-avoid technology will continue to grow, and so we are investing in that.”
In the six years since it was founded, WFA has successfully overcome a variety of challenges with which all drone startups will be familiar.
Koperberg explains: “First was the technology that’s available, which is here. But it needs to be put together into a product that works – a cargo drone system. The combination of aircraft technology, drone technology, the box technology and release technology.
“Second, drone regulations are not ready at all. They are under development. This meant we needed to connect with the right people, those working on the regulations, to work with them to understand how those regulations will continue to develop in the future. So we worked with the German and Dutch aerospace institutes.
“Third was funding. The humanitarian market is a difficult thing for investors to grasp.” This is where the Dutch government came in, says Koperberg. “It provides military support for the testing of the system and guidance in how to build it, and also financial support so that we could start up.”
After this six-year startup process, WFA is finally ready to get off the ground in 2020.
“Our aircraft will be ready in Q1, 2020,” confirms Koperberg. “Then we will have a testing period. So anyone who has a request can come to us in Q1. Then we will see what kind of business we do. We will only have one drone at first, and will then slowly acquire more depending on how much interest there is from humanitarian actors.
“I expect that in, say, five years, we will be present in all continents with trained personnel so that humanitarian actors can call on us to be there within 24 hours.
“We want to be available anywhere in the world within 24 hours.”