Dutch win crowdsourcing contest for emergency airdrops

January 27, 2012 7:51 am


UN food drops/FILE
ROTTERDAM, Jan 27 – The US Air Force can improve its method for dropping emergency supplies into disaster areas, thanks to crowdsourcing and a pair of Dutch engineers. If a new airdrop system devised by Siepko Bekkering and Michiel Hagenbeek works, relief teams will be better able to supply disaster victims with food and medicines.

How do you safely and effectively drop relief packages after an earthquake or hurricane? The US Air Force has long struggled with that problem. Supplies have to be parachuted far from the disaster-struck population so that falling packages don’t kill or maim anyone. This is just one of the technical drawbacks of airdrops, a method that saves lives but is often clumsy in practice.

Mass collaboration
The Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), which spends billions on advanced weapons systems, put this low-tech question to a huge online community by crowdsourcing. It’s part of a trend in Research and Development called Open Innovation. Instead of solving all problems themselves, companies and even the world’s most powerful airforce put their problems to the crowd, so anyone who likes a challenge can give it a shot.

Dutch engineer Siepko Bekkering was never one to enter online competitions before, until his friend and fellow engineer Michiel Hagenbeek introduced him to the world of ‘mass collaboration.’ Together, they started looking for design challenges. They found one on the InnoCentive [1] website: the US Air Force Research Lab was looking for a better method for humanitarian airdrops. They entered the contest, and within two months Bekkering and Hagenbeek had come up with a winning design.

“I thought it was interesting to develop something for the US military, especially because it can help them give emergency relief to people in trouble,” Bekkering said. “I also wanted to get involved in a crowdsourcing project because it’s a great way to find a solution to a problem.”

Winning designs
As a finalist, Bekkering is $10,000 richer, but his design is now property of the AFRL. It consists of specially-devised rollers and a special chute to eject food packages from the aircraft, eliminating the heavy wooden pallets that sometimes land on people who are awaiting help on the ground.

His design will now compete with another crowdsourced solution the lab selected, from Indonesian engineer Agung Nuswantoro from Tangerang City in Indonesia. That design uses an automated conveyor belt that receives real-time data about windspeed, terrain and drop locations to prevent dangerous mishaps. Nuswantoro based the idea on his knowledge of conveyor belts in the coal industry.

Geek shortage
Now the lab has to decide which of the two finalist designs, selected from over 1,100 entries, will become the standard for the Air Force. The laboratory, like many other research bodies run by the US Defense department, is suffering from a major shortage of scientists and engineers [2]. Advocates of crowdsourcing say Open Innovation is the obvious solution.

Published on Radio Netherlands Worldwide (http://www.rnw.nl)


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