The logistics of international emergency relief: are airships the solution?

March 17, 2014
David Guy

Cyclone Haiyan in the central Philippines in November 2013 demonstrated yet again the crucial role of logistics in emergency relief, particularly in the initial hours and days following a disaster. Logistics (transport, storage and distribution) is one of the most pressing, complex and costly tasks in humanitarian relief, especially in the developing world where the human impact of conflict and disasters tends to be highest and domestic response capacity lowest. Delivery of emergency aid in Asia or Africa often requires the transport of large quantities of material through transport systems (especially roads and sometimes ports and airports) which were never designed for that capacity and deteriorate quickly under pressure of expanded use. Typically, humanitarian agencies are confronted with the prospect of securing sufficient trucks to operate in inhospitable terrain with declining standards of road surfaces and frequent interruptions by rain, sandstorms or other weather events. In addition, local drivers are often in short supply and poorly trained, freight costs escalate rapidly with increased demand and limited supply and both government officials and non-government groups are tempted to position themselves to derive income from the facilitation (or merely absence of obstruction) of passage. Only the dedication and ingenuity of logistics managers and the expenditure of vast sums of money make such programs happen at all. It would be so much easier if the necessary goods and people could be transported entirely by air rather than merely to distribution hubs.

Air transport between the World Wars was in large part a competition between airships and fixed wing aircraft. At that time airships ran a scheduled passenger service (with more than 100 passengers per flight) across the Atlantic and undertook promotional flights around the world. They were regarded as proven technology until the dramatic accidents of the R101 in 1930 and the Hindenburg in 1937 destroyed public confidence and enabled heavier than air options to become dominant. The current airship revival began in the UK in about 1970 and has resulted in the design and construction of successful small airships such as the Airship Industries SkyShip of the 1980s and the Zeppelin NT (New Technology) vehicles operating since 1997. These are mainly used for aerial advertising, tourist flights and camera platforms for television outside broadcasts. The key dilemma confronting the airship industry is to break out of this limited role to contribute to a range of areas of potential application long identified, such as military surveillance, minerals prospecting, remote area supply and humanitarian relief.

The potential advantages of airship technology relative to land transport or fixed wing aircraft include low fuel usage compared to heavier than air vehicles with corresponding savings in both operating costs and greenhouse gas emissions, a requirement for only basic infrastructure for ground handling and cargo loading and unloading, avoidance of the congested road systems characteristic of emergency relief conditions, flexibility in deployment and rapid resumption of delivery services after adverse weather conditions.

This airship revival of the past few decades offers the possibility of deploying transport facilities for emergency relief which are not dependent on existing infrastructure and can ferry goods and people from logistic supply hubs to and from outlying locations such as refugee camps. These conditions would be eased dramatically if an aerial infrastructure corridor could be created which avoided the bottlenecks posed by the existing road network, delivered goods directly from international ports or airports to communities in need, could be based and maintained in neighbouring countries if necessary and would be under one central administrative control. Aircraft are used in specialist roles in emergency relief, but the need for runways and associated technology imposes limits on their use. Airships require only minimal infrastructure support at the point of delivery and could form the basis of such a corridor capable of being created or redeployed at short notice. It is true that airships are vulnerable to attack by ground-based weapons, but in conflict zones all forms of transport are vulnerable and services subject to disruption.

Both the airship industry and the humanitarian relief industry are at critical points in their evolution. Both are subject to pressures to adopt significant changes in industry outlook, methods of operation and institutional linkages if they are to address the challenges they face in the decades ahead. This may provide some prospect for cooperation in the future to their mutual advantage. However, on the supply side the airship industry is currently trapped below critical mass, requiring a sustained production line rather than the ad hoc manufacturing process to date, with consequent improvements in efficiency and cost reduction. There are probably only a dozen or so airships currently flying world-wide, plus some blimps without a rigid internal framework. If emergency relief agencies wished to buy one or more airships, they would need to be built, and possibly even designed, from scratch with a good deal of uncertainty surrounding cost and time frames for delivery. At any point in time there are plans for the design and ultimate manufacture of large airships with intercontinental reach and large payloads (projects are currently under development in France, Russia and North America). These concepts could change the face of emergency relief, but they may never be realised due to lack of funding, delivery times are highly speculative and cost estimates are unreliable. No agency or corporation is likely to have more than a passing interest in such developments in their initial stages. However, the Zeppelin NT is operational today. It has a limited payload of two tonnes (compared to 20 tonnes carried by a C-130 Hercules and 65 tonnes by the Airbus A330-200F cargo plane) and a range of around 900 kilometres. The cost would be in the order of $10 million per airship, depending on specifications. This means that a small fleet of airships available now could in principle deliver the supplies necessary to address the logistic problems encountered recently in Kenya, Pakistan or the Philippines.

On the demand side, the annual ICRC World Disaster Report suggests that the new population affected by conflict or natural disasters fluctuates at around 500,000 a year. However, because the disaster recovery process takes years rather than weeks or months to complete, the global affected community numbers several million people at any point in time. This means that relief agencies are faced with a global emergency which is ever present, although geographically mobile, and growing in both the frequency and scale of human impact of major events. Logistics represents a major cost component and a serious constraint to the effective delivery of humanitarian relief, especially in protracted emergencies in the developing world. Cost-effective logistic solutions are therefore in principle of critical interest to relief agencies. As the humanitarian sector has grown and matured, it has become more aware of the importance of innovation, as indicated in the establishment of ALNAP and the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF). However, agencies still tend to be risk averse as the nature of their operations against severe time constraints and the human cost of failure leaves very little room for error or experimentation. In addition, relief agencies are highly dependent on continuous support from financial donors, both individual and organisational, and accountability standards are growing all the time. The consequences on fundraising of an unsuccessful investment in a technical experiment could be catastrophic. This situation provides little space for innovation on the scale necessary to move to a new transport mode. There is inevitably a momentum behind established arrangements, including choice of technologies. A shift from trucks and/or ships and aircraft, even if only partial, would require the establishment of new infrastructure facilities and associated training for staff. Agencies are unlikely to consider this if the benefits are merely marginal. The airship industry would need to establish beyond dispute that the application of its technology would create significant benefits in terms of time, cost or security to both relief agencies and their target communities. The risk associated with such a transition would also need to be demonstrably low.

At present the airship and humanitarian relief industries live in parallel universes and are largely unaware of what is happening in each other’s worlds. Bridging this gap between innovation and potential beneficiaries is an essential starting point if the application of airships to emergency relief is ever to be realised. There is no single action which can bring that about. However, it is likely that any future scenario will be based on collaborative action by the major relief agencies (coordinated perhaps by the World Food Programme which is designated by the UN as the lead agency for humanitarian logistics) to organise evaluation of the potential of airships in emergency relief and demonstration of the effectiveness of these in the field. A detailed and rigorous evaluation study needs to be undertaken of the potential contribution of airships in a series of recent emergency situations to determine whether savings in terms of cost, time and efficiency could have been achieved. This would presumably need to be funded jointly by relief agencies, bilateral and multilateral aid agencies and the airship industry. If agencies were to invest in the commissioning of a fleet of airships, the decision would be made by senior executives on the recommendation of their logistics staff. These logistics managers would require reassurance on some basic aspects of airship operation, including manoeuvrability, reliability, safety, security of mooring, payload, simplicity and reliability of cargo loading and unloading, and vulnerability to extreme weather conditions. This could be achieved through demonstrations by airship manufacturers both at headquarters and in the field. It could also be done in part through a computer simulation exercise, as was undertaken recently by Dassault Systemes in respect of towing icebergs to areas in serious need of fresh water.

The role of airships in emergency relief is discussed often in airship circles and from time to time in humanitarian circles, but there is as yet no sustained dialogue and analysis which is likely to result in the application of airship technology to field conditions. A major initiative is required along the lines described above, involving key players in the humanitarian sector, the airship industry and development finance. The cost is likely to exceed the resources of existing funding facilities such as the HIF. Executives within humanitarian agencies would also need the courage and confidence to back their judgment and make what could well be the highest risk but most far-reaching decision of their careers. In the absence of such an initiative, it is probable that the potential contribution of airships to the logistics of emergency relief will remain tantalisingly present but always just on the horizon.

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