An unmanned variant of the K-MAX.

An unmanned variant of the K-MAX. U.S. Marine Corps Photo

Why Isn’t The Pentagon Using Supply Drones For Ebola?

Drones have long supplied fighters in Afghanistan. Now we need them to supply Ebola fighters in Africa. By Michael Auerbach

In testimony before Congress about the Defense Department’s efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak, Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Lumpkin said, “I traveled to the region thinking we faced a healthcare crisis with a logistics challenge. In reality, we face a logistics crisis focused on a healthcare challenge.”

These logistical challenges have meant that Operation United Assistance, despite a valiant effort, has gotten off to a rocky start. The region has a shortage of heavy trucks, roadways are often impassable -- especially when it rains -- and supply chains can be disrupted at the whim of thieves or corrupt local officials. It’s also difficult to get used materials back out of the affected areas for safe disposal, and aid workers are understandably wary to travel into the hardest hit areas for fear of exposure.

In the midst of this chaos, however, there is a solution staring us in the face: military-grade drones. These machines have been extraordinarily successful at delivering supplies to American troops in remote parts of Afghanistan. They could easily be repurposed to deliver humanitarian aid, and in so doing bypass the need for roads, the risk of theft and even reduce the number of personnel needed on the ground in remote regions. 

Humanitarian organizations, particularly the Silicon Valley startup Matter Net, have been exploring the use of drones in relief efforts for the past several years, but the technology that is currently available to civilians is insufficient for the urgent challenge in West Africa. The quadcopter drones that companies like Matter Net, Amazon, and DHL are testing may be useful for imaging or small deliveries, but they cannot deliver literal tons of humanitarian payloads. Due to International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, the only drones that are currently suited to the task of large-scale humanitarian relief are assets of the U. S. Government -- particularly the K-Max, designed by Kaman and unmanned by Lockheed Martin, and Shield Aviation’s Ares.

These are extraordinary machines: K-Max is the world’s most efficient medium-lift helicopter, capable of carrying 6,000 lbs. and operating with minimal support equipment and personnel. The Unmanned K-Max conducted thousands of delivery missions in Afghanistan, 4.5 million lbs. in total, including most of the materials broken down from remote outposts at war’s end. The Ares cannot carry as much as the K-Max, but its 10-hour endurance means it can power multiple deliveries simultaneously.

In addition to literally flying over supply chain problems, drones cost significantly less to operate than manned missions and require far less personnel. Upon returning from missions, these aircrafts can be easily disinfected before being sent out again -- at any time of day. So the Pentagon in short order could be operating missions continuously, day and night, delivering and removing tons of supplies at a time. 

And here’s the kicker: the U.S. owns two unmanned K-MAX helicopters that are not being used. They are home from Afghanistan, sitting in storage in upstate New York.

These drones of course are not a panacea. There will still be logistical issues, especially around the necessity of evacuating volunteers. There will also be a need to educate and acclimate local communities to the drones’ presence, but that has already been proven possible in non-conflict zones, particularly in Haiti and the Balkans.

In short, the Pentagon has paradigm shifting equipment at its disposal that can dramatically reduce logistical hurdles and is only available to the U.S. government. This exhaustively battle-tested technology, which is currently sitting idle, would significantly relieve suffering in West Africa and, by extension, help prevent a global contagion. As such, the Pentagon has both a moral and logistical imperative to deploy these assets as soon as possible. There’s too much good that can be done and too much risk if it is not. 

With all due respect, what are we waiting for?