The First Hurricane Relief Drone Was Ready to Fly—Then Dorian Hit
A drone company on Great Abaco, in the Bahamas, was prepared to deliver emergency supplies if the hurricane struck. Dorian had other plans.
As Hurricane Dorian whiplashed the Bahamas on September 1 with 185-mph winds, a drone with lifesaving potential was positioned at the Marsh Harbour airport on the island of Great Abaco. Designed to carry temperature-sensitive medicine, it could deliver urgent supplies such as anesthetics, insulin, and wound care materials when roads, airports, and even waterways left people stranded.
Unfortunately, the winds demolished the cargo hangar and all its contents.
“It’s a case of being too highly optimized,” says Andrew Schroeder, vice president of research and analysis for Direct Relief, a global humanitarian aid organization that had been testing the drone for disaster relief. “We were exactly right [in the location], and actually that turns out to be the problem.”
Owned by a Bahamian drone operator, this autonomous flyer had carried a container with sensors that continuously monitor temperature, called a Softbox Skypod, in its test flights. If it had survived the storm, it would have been the first drone to engage in hurricane relief.
Drones have been widely used to assess damage after natural disasters, carrying cameras that take images of roads, bridges, and power lines. The next step—drones carrying vital supplies—is tantalizingly close. Hurricane Dorian and 2017's Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico left a path of widespread devastation, making aid distribution difficult and dangerous. By the next summer storm season, drones may finally be ready to help.
The unmanned aircraft stationed on Abaco was owned by Fli Drone, which launched its delivery service just before the hurricane hit. Two former college classmates created the service with a dual purpose: to offer swift delivery of whatever a high-end customer might need (champagne on a yacht, anyone?) and to provide a new way to respond to natural disasters or emergencies. Even in normal times, “just getting things where they need to be is very hard in this country,” says Robert Sweeting, a native Bahamian and CEO of Nassau-based Hogfish Ventures, of which Fli Drone is a subsidiary.
Fli’s drone resembles a small airplane, with a wingspan of about 10 feet, but it takes off vertically like a helicopter. Fli Drone was based at the Marsh Harbour hangar—an apt choice or a bad one, depending upon how you look at it. (A Category 5 hurricane hadn’t hit the Abaco Islands in modern times.) The company also has drones based in Nassau, but their 60-mile range is insufficient to reach the Abaco Islands on their own. It took a few days after the storm for Sweeting to learn that the company’s employees all survived; they have evacuated to Nassau.
Fli Drone is now acquiring drones with a 300-mile range for next year. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have a sizable fleet in place for Hurricane Dorian,” says Arthur Frisch, Hogfish Ventures’ chief technology officer. “What we do have in place is a strategy for how we will deploy our drone fleet in the future.”
The Bahamas is a 700-island archipelago spread across 100,000 square miles of ocean, which means lots of small aircraft occupy the airspace. That equates to both a big opportunity for drones and big hurdles in their implementation. Aviation authorities restrict drone flights to avoid conflicts with planes and helicopters, to protect privacy, and to avoid creating a nuisance.
But four days after the Category 5 storm battered the Bahamas, a British Navy ship arrived with food, water, shelter boxes, and other relief. Because the port was filled with debris and sand, the boat remained eight miles offshore and supplies had to be carried ashore on inflatable boats. Delivering it inland was hampered by the overwhelming destruction.
“I think Hurricane Dorian was a wake-up call,” says Basil Yap, a UAS program manager at the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which is testing drones as part of a Federal Aviation Administration.
In the US, where the FAA has registered more than 1 million drones, regulations limit drone use to daytime only and within the “visual line of sight” of the pilot. They cannot be flown over people. Yet disaster relief provides a strong rationale for providing exceptions to those restrictions. For example, although Hurricane Dorian caused minimal damage in North Carolina, Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks was submerged by floodwaters. It has no bridges and is accessible only by boat or plane; in the aftermath of a storm, anyone still on the island can quickly become stranded.
The North Carolina transportation department made its first major deployment of drones in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in 2018, flying more than 260 drone missions to direct emergency responders and divert traffic away from damaged roads and bridges. “We are very interested in how we can use drones for medical package delivery during a natural disaster,” says Yap. “I hope by next year we’re ready.”
The transportation agency had already partnered with a drone company, Matternet, along with UPS to transport lab samples across a hospital complex in Raleigh. The department also has arranged for Israeli-based Flytrex to deliver food via drone to a sports and recreation area in Holly Springs, a Raleigh suburb.
The point isn’t just to provide quicker meals on soccer afternoons. These projects help work out potential kinks in drone transport while the public becomes accustomed to seeing unmanned objects delivering packages. (They might not be alone in the sky for long: Amazon promises its drone package delivery service is also imminent.) “We don’t want to introduce something new during a disaster,” adds Yap. “You want to figure it out and test it beforehand.”
In the early days of a disaster, helicopters often transport large volumes of supplies and equipment. But a drone could make regular small shipments to health centers, according to Schroeder of Direct Relief. Because many drones are operated via radio signals, they can still fly if cell towers are down.
The drones can fly in rain or light winds. They can deliver packages without landing. They fly up to 400 feet above roads and around obstacles. And when the lack of food or medical supplies becomes a life-threatening emergency, drones may be the perfect rescuers.
“If it’s done right, it’s safer. You’re not flying people. Drones can operate 24/7,” Schroeder says. “You could run regular shuttles to areas that are in need.”
It took Hogfish Ventures almost two years to get its drone operations off the ground, working through all the technical and logistical issues and receiving authorization to fly. Providing equipment parts—to a malfunctioning ship, for example—is a compelling use of drones. But Fli Drone received approvals to operate in the Bahamas because it also is working with the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency.
In June 2019, a drone flew about 50 miles round trip in a test run between Marsh Harbour and the small barrier island of Green Turtle Cay, making the trip in about 30 minutes each way. In good weather, it would have taken a few hours to transport the package by truck to the ferry dock, and by ferry to the cay. The test was sponsored by the pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co., which partnered with Direct Relief. This drone was in the right place, ready to do the right thing—but not quite at the right time.