To boldly go…

by Shaun Hazeldine, Innovation Lead, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) | International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) - Switzerland
Monday, 23 May 2016 12:19 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

What happens when you bring in space scientists to address the increasing humanitarian challenges that States and emergency responders are grappling with around the world? Innovation beyond our wildest expectations.

In November 2015, scientists from Airbus Group and disaster and health emergency experts from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) came together at the Airbus Space Labs to begin work on solving critical technological challenges that affect the IFRC’s community-based humanitarian operations.

Airbus Group and IFRC have a long-standing partnership, with Airbus supporting our humanitarian missions with well-established products such as aircraft, helicopters and mobile rescue stations. The partnership has now expanded to evaluate emerging technologies that are critical to humanitarian relief. IFRC are pitching problems at Airbus that have confounded the sector so far, and Airbus are pairing their best people and technologies with IFRC technical leads to find solutions.

Challenge 1

Design a solution to provide a pressurized operating environment with suction capability for medical purposes during disaster and emergency response in developing countries. Must be lightweight, robust and easy to transport.

When a large-scale earthquake happens, like the one we’ve just seen in Ecuador, or the earthquake and tsunami disaster like the one that hit Japan in 2011, thousands of people experience severe injuries including crushed bones which require orthopedic surgery.

During many emergencies in developing countries, primary closure of a wound cannot happen due to potential infection, a risk that exists because pressurized operating environments cannot be set up. This is a problem for all major disaster response agencies and currently the only available solutions are highly expensive military-grade field hospitals, which are not accessible to humanitarian organizations. Airbus, through their work on the space station and aircraft, have substantial expertise in pressurized environments. So they are now developing a solution that could provide an inexpensive, robust and effective means to set up pressurized operating environments. This would not only revolutionize the way these injuries can be treated, but would be an innovation for agencies across the humanitarian sector.

Challenge 2

Adapt Airbus’s decontamination technology to reduce biological contamination during disease epidemics. Must be intuitive technology for use in developing contexts.

During many major health emergencies, effective decontamination is a matter of life or death. For example, during the West Africa Ebola outbreak, many thousands of homes had to be decontaminated. This dangerous work was often undertaken by volunteers, who scrubbed the homes manually. Though the volunteers were well equipped with protective gear it was still an extremely high-risk activity, as well as laborious and slow.

Airbus have already developed a highly advanced decontaminant fogging machine that was designed and used on the International Space Station. It is quick – able to decontaminate entire rooms in under than an hour – and highly effective, completely decontaminating even highly complex spaces such as a space station.

Perhaps most importantly it can significantly reduce the risk of disease for volunteers by reducing or eliminating their contact with infected spaces. Airbus is now working with the IFRC’s emergency health team to explore how this technology can be mobilized effectively during major health emergencies.

Challenge 3

Design a drone to transport urgent medical supplies to people and places that are traditionally difficult to reach. Must combine vertical take-off and landing and hovering capabilities with the speed and cruise efficiency of a fixed-wing aircraft.

Throwing this challenge open, Airbus has invited technology partners, designers, engineers and others to take existing drone technology, which is already widely used in humanitarian response, and expand its capability.

The winning submission will enable first-responders in an emergency context to deliver urgent medical supplies to places that can’t be reached by traditional means; transport medical supplies to rural users that typically don't have access to modern medicine for reasons of geography, distance, or geographical and political boundaries, and deliver life-saving aid to people in areas or regions affected by conflict. In partnership with Local Motors and other tech companies, there are financial incentives to attract the best minds to the task. 

Transformative collaboration

These are just three of the ten challenges that Airbus is working on to transform humanitarian relief. This is the kind of innovation and collaboration across sectors that sets us all on the path from delivering aid to ending need and truly changing people’s lives — a core responsibility outlined in the Report of the UN Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit. The IFRC is a champion of this approach, which is central to our imperative to pursue new approaches and work with ‘out of the box’ thinkers.

Our collaboration with Airbus is based on the understanding that adaptations of their technologies will only be fit for purpose if the communities that need them are involved at all stages of development. This is the two-way exchange that the IFRC offers: connecting expert local and national responders to world-class technological solutions.

More innovation will be needed if we are to rise to the challenge of meeting the world’s intricate long-term needs. We are committed in our collaboration with Airbus to future planning and to testing advanced technology both for its practical application and its compatibility with the humanitarian principles and ethical innovation principles that guide the work of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.