Published: 00:02, 03 February 2018
Aid packages delivered by parachute have been saving lives in the storm-hit Caribbean after being developed in Kent.
Two weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Irma, the people of Puerto Rico found themselves recovering from disaster again when Hurricane Maria struck the island in September.
Some estimates suggest the storm killed up to 1,000 people on the Caribbean paradise, causing an estimated $94.4 billion (£70.4bn) of damage.
Yet many families were able to begin piecing their lives back together with aid delivered using a revolutionary device developed in a farm shed in Kent.
Air Drop Box uses a parachute to gently send supplies thrown out of light aircraft, giving humanitarian organisations a cheap and safe method of getting food and clothing to those in need quickly.
It began life four years ago when Russ Taylor, a retired aeronautical engineer, was contacted by his friend George Cook upon seeing the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan when it hit the Philippines, killing at least 6,300 people.
“We were thinking ‘if we had been in place ready to go we could have shipped stuff out there and people would have been getting aid more quickly’,” said Mr Taylor.
“It didn’t start getting distributed until the aircraft carriers arrived, two weeks after it happened. In that time, people were drinking foul water and that’s quite scary.”
The pair began developing a low-cost way of dropping aid into disaster zones, which was used for the first time in Puerto Rico in October and hailed by Mr Taylor as a success.
At present, many aid airdrops do not use parachutes because of the expense.
This means the drops can be dangerous as people rush forward to get hold of bags of supplies which can weigh 50kg.
They fall out of the sky at 150 knots from 1,000 feet, causing serious injury and killing people in many cases.
The products designed by Mr Taylor are capable of delivering packages weighing between 5kg and 80kg, which can be thrown out the door of a plane from an altitude of 500 feet and land within 30 seconds.
Crucially, it can be delivered using relatively low-cost light aircraft, meaning a charity can run an airdrop for about $600.
Mr Taylor, who has previously worked on RAF Tornado aircraft and Concorde, said a military drop in a C130 Hercules aircraft would cost between £10,000 and £12,000.
The company’s financial backer, Mr Cook, has already invested £1 million in developing the product in a 2,500 sq ft shed in Wrotham and testing it on flights from Headcorn Aerodrome.
The company had only just begun marketing itself when it picked up the work in Puerto Rico, having taken a stand at the Defence and Security Event exhibition at the ExCeL in London in September.
People working for Das Shipping, who were helping in the aid effort, asked how many devices the company could send them after seeing a tweet sent by a journalist who saw their stand at the show.
Mr Taylor said: “We had 53 available because we had only just got to that point. We shipped everything we had and they came back and said ‘we want more’.
“I imagine we have saved lives. I don’t know how many because the feedback in any situation like this is always slow.
“We also designed this to be simple so that anyone getting the system didn’t need to do a week-long course in how to use it before it is used in real life.
“There isn’t time for that in a disaster.
“We designed it to have Ikea-type instructions, with photos showing what you do.
“The feedback from Puerto Rico is that it was simple to use which is great. People followed it and it works.
“This makes it more viable to use an air drop from an humanitarian aid point of view.
“If you can get aid in quickly people will stay in situ and rebuild and recover from disaster, rather than become refugees.”
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