On September 1, 2019, as hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas with 185-mph winds, a drone with high priority potential was placed at the Marsh Harbour airport on the island of Great Abaco. Aimed to carry temperature-sensitive medicine, it could supply urgent supplies such as insulin, anesthetics, and wound care materials when airports, roads, and even waterways left people helpless.

Unluckily, the winds destroyed the cargo hangar and all its elements.

“It’s a case of being too highly improved,” says Andrew Schroeder, vice president of research and analysis for Direct Relief, an international humanitarian aid organization that had been experimenting the drone for calamity relief. “We were accurately right [in the site], and that turns out to be the problem.”

Possessed by a Bahamian drone operator, this independent flyer had carried a container with sensors that continuously monitor temperature, called a Softbox Skypod, in its trial flights. If it had persisted the storm, it would have been the first drone to involve in hurricane relief.

Drones have been widely used to gauge damage after natural disasters, hoisting cameras that take images of bridges, roads, and power lines. The following step—drones transporting essential supplies—is excitingly near. Hurricane Dorian and 2017’s Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico left behind a path of extensive destruction, making relief distribution problematic and risky. Till the next summer storm season, drones may ultimately be ready to help.

Fli Drone possessed the unmanned aircraft positioned on Abaco, which launched its delivery service just before the hurricane smashed. Two former college classmates made the service with a twofold purpose: to offer rapid delivery of whatever an exclusive customer might need (champagne on a yacht, anyone?) and to give a new way to react to emergencies or natural disasters. Even in usual times, “just getting things where they need to be is very difficult in this country,” says Robert Sweeting, a Bahamian and CEO of Nassau-based Hogfish Ventures, of which Fli Drone is a subsidiary.

Fli’s drone looks like a small airplane, with a wingspan of about 10 feet, but it takes off vertically similar to a helicopter. Fli Drone was located at the Marsh Harbour hangar—an appropriate choice or a bad one, depending upon how you view it. The company also has drones centered in Nassau, but their 60-mile range is inadequate to reach the Abaco Islands on their own. It took some days after the storm for Sweeting to learn that the company’s employees all evaded death; they have moved out to Nassau.

Fli Drone is now getting drones with a 300-mile range for the subsequent year. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have a spacious fleet in place for Hurricane Dorian,” says Arthur Frisch, Hogfish Ventures’ lead technology officer. “What we do have in place is an approach for how we will deploy our drone fleet in the future.”

The Bahamas is a 700-island archipelago stretch across 100,000 square miles of ocean, which means lots of small aircraft inhabit the airspace. That associate with both a huge opportunity for drones and big obstacles in their operation. Aeronautics authorities limit drone flights to avoid encounters with planes and helicopters, to protect the confidentiality, and to avoid creating trouble.

But after four days, the Category 5 storm hit the Bahamas; a British Navy ship reached with water, food, shelter boxes, and other aid. Because the port was packed with sand and debris, the boat remained eight miles offshore, and supplies had to be transported ashore on inflatable boats. Transporting it inland was hindered by the devastating 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 experimenting drones as part of a Federal Aviation Administration project.

damage by hurricane dorian
Some of the devastation caused by the hurricane

In the US, where the FAA has listed more than 1 million drones, guidelines restrict drone use today only and within the “visual line of sight” of the pilot. They cannot hover over people. Yet disaster relief gives a solid rationale for providing allowances to those margins. For instance, although Hurricane Dorian caused negligible damage in North Carolina, Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks was immersed in floodwaters. With no bridges and reachable only by plane or boat, as a result of a storm, one still on the island can get stuck quickly.

The North Carolina transportation department started its first significant positioning of drones in response to Hurricane Florence in 2018, flying more than 260 drone missions to guide emergency responders and avert traffic away from damaged bridges and roads. “We are very concerned about how we can use drones for medical set distribution during a natural calamity,” says Yap. “I hope by next year we’re ready.”

The transportation agency had already associated with a drone company, Matternet, along with UPS, to carry lab samples to a hospital complex in Raleigh. The branch also has arranged for Israeli-based Flytrex to transport food via drone to a recreation and sports area in Holly Springs, a Raleigh suburb.

The aim isn’t just to provide quick meals on soccer afternoons. These ventures help work out potential flaws in drone transport while the public becomes familiar with seeing unmanned objects delivering packages.  They might not be the only one in the sky for long: Amazon has also promised its drone package delivery service soon. “We don’t want to present something new during a disaster,” adds Yap. “You want to figure it out and check it beforehand.”

In the initial days of a disaster, helicopters frequently carry large volumes of equipment and supplies. But a drone could make consistent small shipments to health points, according to Schroeder of Direct Relief. Because many drones are controlled via radio signals, they can still fly if cell towers are down.

The drones can fly in light winds or rain. They can deliver parcels without a touchdown. They fly up to 400 feet around hurdles and above roads. And when the shortage of food or medical supplies becomes a severe emergency, drones may be the perfect saviors.

“If it’s done correctly, it’s safer. You’re not flying humans. Drones can operate 24/7,” Schroeder says. “You could run regular shuttles to areas that are in need.”

Hogfish Ventures took almost two years to get its drone operations kickoff, working through all the logistical and technical issues and receiving approval to fly. Providing equipment parts—to a faulty ship, for example—is a convincing use of drones. But Fli Drone received supports to work 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 trial run between the small barrier island of Green Turtle Cay and  Marsh Harbour and, making the journey in about 30 minutes each way. In right conditions, it would have taken a few hours to deliver the package via truck to the ferry dock, and by ferry to the cay. The test was funded by the pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co., which collaborated with Direct Relief. This drone was in the correct place, ready to do the right thing—but not quite at the appropriate time.

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