Unmanned Aerial Systems to the Rescue

One of the many thrust areas directed by NJII’s  Defense and Homeland Security iLab deals with emerging and disruptive technologies that are shaping the future of our national defense, security and public safety environments. By working with real world and applied research case studies, use cases and solutions sets, the iLab provides assistance to government entities in closing or minimizing gaps in planning and executing defense and security strategies.

As an example, the New Jersey Unmanned Autonomous Systems Test Site recently worked with the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) in developing and conducting aerial research based on information and data collected during Hurricane Maria. Maria, a deadly Category 5 hurricane devastated Puerto Rico and caused an extended humanitarian crisis for months and also severely impacted Dominica and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was regarded as the worst natural disaster in recorded history to affect those islands and was the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Maria destroyed the critical communications and support infrastructure normally used in transitioning supplies from container ships to the docks at the ports of entry. This crippling damage affected the entire island and had a significant second and third order effect surfacing as an international humanitarian crisis of epic proportion. It became apparent that a solution was not readily available and that this needed to be resolved as soon as possible to avoid instability and the collapse of governance. In particular was the urgent requirement to get needed supplies of water, food and medicine brought by ships into the hands of the local populace. However, the destruction of port facilities made the task next to impossible.

A number of workarounds were suggested to include transloading cargo from large ships to medium and small boats and then off-loading the supplies at those shore locations where that task could be accomplished. In addition to the logistic challenge, accountability became an issue as to how much product was loaded and delivered because at each of the transitioning points losses were incurred due to breakdowns in inadequate packaging and sadly, pilferage.

The DLA became involved at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and the defense logistics planners went to work in developing operational plans to solve the crisis. This was a frustrating process at times, and as history will show, challenged the Puerto Rican government to develop a solution. The DLA finally turned to NJII and our Defense and Homeland Security iLab to help document the ability of unmanned aerial vehicles to provide transport of supplies over a variety of waterways and terrain so that life-saving necessities could be delivered to communities unreachable by any other method.

Our team worked with the DLA, developed a Request for Proposal, organized the solicitation of support and helped to down-select vendors to meet DLA requirements.  We then conducted research, worked with the selected vendor to develop technology and deploy a platform using an unmanned aerial vehicle to transport 55 pounds of material over a mile on land and then a mile off shore and deposit it on the deck of a Coast Guard cutter. This demonstrated that the reverse path would be a viable approach to cargo distribution in situations like those that confronted Puerto Rico. The testing was conducted at Cape May Bay in New Jersey and documented the utility of unmanned aerial vehicles in support of emergency operations.

NJII’s subject matter expertise incorporated proven aeronautical research activities and due diligence in all flights with the goal of incorporating unmanned aerial vehicle integration into the National Air Space in a secure and safe manner. Lessons learned in the data collection and analysis serve as a guide in addressing emergency relief operations and provide a roadmap for the future. All of the related work and research results have been documented and made available to the FAA for support of a national strategy as an innovative method for the delivery of materials and supplies in emergency and natural disaster situations.