Could the edible drone be a humanitarian game changer?

Technology invented to kill people could help alleviate hunger in conflict
June 21, 2017

The idea for the Pouncer was born out of a chance conversation Nigel Gifford had with an RAF officer. Gifford is a businessman in his early 70s, ex-Army Catering Corps, sometime mountaineer and aeronautical engineer, a hale, enthusiastic boffin. They were talking about all things military when the RAF officer said: “I’m going to take off my uniform now and ask you—because we’ve been trying—how to get food into Aleppo?”

They had tried JPADS (Joint Precision Airdrop Systems—one of those ironically straight-faced military acronyms), parachuting tons of supplies out of planes. But parachutes are inaccurate: “they say they can get them within 300 metres of a target, but they are often further away,” said Gifford. Most of the food they dropped was falling into the hands of the bad guys. They had even tried freefall, essentially chucking bags out of airplanes from 24,000 feet. The RAF officer talked about his idea of flying remotely-controlled model airplanes into the besieged city, each carrying a scant two kilos of food.

Gifford told him, off the top of his head: “I wouldn’t do that. I would built drones out of food.” And the more Gifford thought about it, the more it made sense to him.

A mixture of the military and the culinary runs in the family. Gifford’s father joined the Army Catering Corps when it was created in 1941, went to Normandy just after D-Day and later badly burned his legs trying to light a petrol stove in the dark in Nijmegen. After the war he opened a restaurant in Dorking and the young Nigel would sit under the pastry table as his father banged out hundreds of scones and the flour drifted through the room like fog.

As a boy, he really loved planes. “I wanted to fly them, but I couldn’t because I was colour-blind. I was gutted.” After school he studied aeronautical engineering and worked with one of the early airlines, before following his dad and joining the Army Catering Corps. “Cooking from scratch, canteen-style, like school dinners. Reclaimed foods; a thing called Durham Cutlets which was a kind of rissole.” Convenience foods appeared gradually: custard powder, dehydrated combat rations. It was the late 1960s, the Cold War was at its height but there weren’t many real battles. The army began to turn to adventure training for distraction. Canoeing, rock-climbing. Gifford became a serious mountaineer and developed ration packs for extreme environments. He learned from civilian mountaineers about “gorp bags,” a mix of nuts, raisins, chocolate and muesli, a kind of early power bar, that kept them going. He advised a friend embarking on Special Air Service selection to use them. In 1976 he was in charge of nutrition for the Army’s expedition to Everest.

He eventually left the army and went into business, importing footballs and organising adventure holidays in the Himalayas. In 2009 he went bankrupt. Then with a group of like-minded aeronauticals who had been involved in building a platform that could take people to the edge of space, he developed a solar-powered unmanned aircraft that could stay at very high altitudes for weeks at a time and beam an internet connection to the ground. “On 17th March 2014 I had £6 in the bank. I thought, I’m screwed. Then the phone rang and a voice said, ‘it’s Facebook acquisitions.’” They sold their communications platform for several million pounds.

Thinking about how to get humanitarian aid into besieged Aleppo, Gifford realised that his experience of nutrition, logistics and aeronautics could come together.

“I had my experience with processed food. Military rations are compressed and vacuum sealed. And I knew I could build an airframe to fly from A to B, one way. That would be the end of its aircraft life, but now it could be eaten. For example, pasta has 10 per cent the tensile strength of aluminum and so could be used to make spars, with a honeycomb interior for strength and then fill it with tomato sauce. When it lands it can be cooked.”

Gifford and his partners at Somerset-based Windhorse Aerospace have just successfully tested the first prototype airframe. It was built out of wood, capable of carrying 50 kilos of food and can land within seven to 10 metres of the target.

There is huge pressure to get something workable. This spring the Ministry of Defence announced that as part of their £800m Defence Innovation Fund they would be looking to provide grants to companies solving the problem of delivery “to the last mile.” In today’s conflicts helicopters are vulnerable to attack, roads are seeded with explosive devices and parachute airdrops are impractical in built-up areas. Windhorse are hoping to solve these problems and have their first batch of disposable drones operational by Christmas. The British government, the World Health Organisation and charities are eager to use them in places like the Syrian-Jordanian border, Yemen or northern Nigeria.

Hunger is a weapon of war, but the edible drone could be a humanitarian game changer. Gifford is determined to keep it non-military. The fact the it can’t be re-used or re-purposed is key. “Even if you shot at them with small arms, they would probably only bleed flour.”

He is working on how to maximise calorie-to-kilo ratio for an efficient payload and creating a design that people around the world can immediately understand, in visual terms, what to do with the components: burn wood struts for kindling, eat the payload, use the aircraft’s skin as a tarpaulin for shelter. Ultimately Gifford hopes to increase the number of edible components, and the capacity of the Pouncer to up to 100 kilos and produce the aircraft in the UK, cheaply; for about £500 each.

Drones (as AC Grayling set out in Prospect’s June issue) were developed to watch and kill people. Increasingly their civilian humanitarian potential is being realised. Food delivery service? Siege breakers? Why not? What crazy idea wasn’t first derided as pie-in-the-sky?