Getting supplies to ICRC field teams in hard-to-reach places is an essential but often costly task. A new low-altitude airdrop method employs small airplanes and second-hand parachutes to safely deliver medicines, equipment, food and other items.

In the high-adventure world of paragliding, pilots pack safety parachutes to be deployed in an emergency. These have to be replaced regularly. The Swiss organization Humanitarian Pilots Initiative (HPI), which includes many pilots and paragliding enthusiasts, has now found a use for the thousands of parachutes that are discarded in Europe every year – in humanitarian response.

“Instead of throwing these good materials in the bin, we collect them for reuse,” says HPI’s Damien Van Oost.

Airdrops have been used in aid operations for decades, but the scale and costs are immense, involving large cargo planes and tonnes of supplies.

HPI’s Super Versatile Airdrop System (SVAS) is different. It favours low-altitude airdrops that deliver boxed payloads of between 30-180 kilogrammes from a range of small fixed-wing aircraft, including the Cessna Caravan and DHC-3 Otter. It uses the donated parachutes to deliver the items safely and accurately into small drop zones.

“Rather than having a C-130 Hercules dropping once a month, we foresee regular smaller drops that are easier to organize,” says Van Oost.

Lighter loads also make sense for organizations that deploy small teams in remote locations, accessing hard-to-reach communities.

Systems test

Earlier this year, the ICRC and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), tested the HPI system in Kenya, with support from the Innovation Facilitation Team.

“We were looking for a more cost-effective method of delivering items to remote locations,” says Laurent Camisa, an ICRC Air Operations manager, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Items such as medical equipment, drugs, tools, spare vehicle parts, food and jerrycans, were all boxed up and wrapped in protective foam. They were placed inside durable payload containers made from heavy-duty sacking.

A deployment bag, or “d-bag”, attached to the outside of the payload container, then uses a static line to automatically open the parachute once it is clear of the aircraft’s doors.

The 26 test drops in Kenya, conducted over three days, proved that the payload containers could be accurately and safely airdropped from heights of 120-150 feet (37-46 metres) in wind speeds of up to 10 knots (roughly 19 kilometres per hour).

A small number of fragile items were damaged in some of the test flights. But careful packaging and grouping of items—for example, not putting glass vials with a car battery—solved the problem. Even a box of half a dozen eggs survived the drop unscathed.

“We really learned from this experience to come up with a set of standard operating procedures,” says Camisa.

The cost-savings are multiple – and not just in the donated parachutes, which can cost around EUR 800 (CHF 790) new. In places without useable airstrips, helicopters are the only option for delivering essential supplies. But they cost around USD 4,000 per hour, roughly three times as much as small fixed-wing planes, reckons Philippe de Saint-Georges, of MSF’s Air Operations.

And there are climate benefits too: using old parachutes contributes to the circular economy, a more sustainable system that seeks to recycle and reuse to reduce waste. The donated parachutes can also be used multiple times, unless damaged or torn; even when their airdrop life is over, they become valuable materials for shelters. Using fixed-wing aircraft instead of helicopters also reduces fuel consumption.

Race against the rains

HPI has already sourced 400 used parachutes via a single advert in a Swiss paragliding magazine. With an estimated 125,000 paragliders in Europe, they believe they could collect as many as 240 parachutes a week.

Another attraction for the ICRC and MSF teams was the altruistic approach of HPI, a largely volunteer non-profit, which has taken an opensource attitude to its pioneering airdrop system. This means that, with a little training, humanitarian organizations will be able to build and deploy their own versions.

“We wanted to simplify it, democratize it and make it available to humanitarian operators,” says Van Oost.

The next step will be field testing in South Sudan in early 2023, ahead of the long rainy season which can leave field teams isolated without road or runway access for months at a time. If the test drops are once again successful, SVAS should be ready for rollout by June when the rains begin, according to MSF’s de Saint-Georges.

“This is an innovative project that really comes from the field,” he says. “MSF and ICRC have a need, and HPI has a solution.”

If the South Sudan trial proves as successful as the Kenya one, Camisa says there may be wider applications: “If we’re able to do it and set it up very quickly and efficiently in difficult contexts, we could reproduce it in, say, a natural disaster.”