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.