A self-driving ATV? WFP and the German Aerospace Center will make it happen

By Jonathan Simms

Readying the SHERP for a test drive on DLR’s campus outside of Munich (Photo: WFP/Kenneth Tong)

The WFP Innovation Accelerator has worked with Munich neighbors DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, or the German Aerospace Center) since its inception in 2015. Those explorations have included UAVs for Cargo Delivery, or how we might effectively deliver aid via unmanned aerial vehicles. Now we are working with the WFP Supply Chain and Global Fleet teams to further develop another idea.

As part of a new and exciting project called AHEAD (Autonomous Humanitarian Emergency Aid Devices), WFP and researchers from DLR’s Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics are launching a partnership to investigate how a higher payload of aid supplies can be safely brought to the dangerous last-mile using remote-controlled trucks; namely the amphibious all-terrain vehicle that WFPers know quite well.

The plan is for remote-controlled vehicles to be used on routes that pose the greatest risk to human drivers, such as some of the impassable and flood-prone areas of South Sudan. The launch of the joint project took place on 21 October, roughly 30 kilometers west of Munich. The DLR site in Oberpfaffenhofen employs 1,800 members of staff (roughly the size of WFP HQ in Rome), and is one of the largest research centres in Germany.

When transporting aid supplies in challenging contexts, drivers are often exposed to risks, especially in conflict zones, outbreaks of infectious disease, or in areas prone to natural disasters. In recent years, the number of armed attacks on humanitarian convoys has also increased. This can make it difficult to access many destinations that are in urgent need of relief. WFP is committed to providing secure transport to reach these destinations with much-needed supplies. The integration of remote-controlled trucks in cooperation with DLR is a promising approach to achieve this goal.

“Aid workers in humanitarian organizations are exposed to an increasing number of hazards and threats. Many operations take place in high-risk environments, such as in regions of civil unrest, civil wars and/or in fragile states experiencing conflict. Difficult conditions are unfortunately ubiquitous for the drivers of our relief convoys,” says Kyriacos Koupparis, head of Frontier Innovations for the WFP Innovation Accelerator in Munich.

These risks are often difficult to assess in advance, especially in sparsely populated areas. Many of the humanitarian aid sites are difficult to access, as the affected areas often lack adequate infrastructure or, in the case of a disaster scenario, may be heavily damaged. Tele-operated vehicles can be used here to make operations safer and to save lives. The further we can go, the more people we can reach.

“To achieve Zero Hunger, WFP must be able to get to those beneficiaries who are hardest to reach, either due to natural barriers or, as we see more and more frequently, due to man-made causes such as conflict,” says Stephen Cahill, WFP’s Director of Logistics. “Technology is one way to do this, and it’s through investment that we can have a range of solutions at our fingertips to help us get to the most remote and isolated areas. We have already seen the value of investing in these technical solutions, such as high altitude airdrops in Syria or the innovative use of simple cranes at the Berm in Jordan, which have provided a much-needed lifeline to those in desperate need.”

The Project AHEAD amphibious ATV parked in front of DLR headquarters post-test drive (Photo: WFP/Kenneth Tong)

In some areas that are difficult to access, relief supplies are delivered by airdrops. This approach is cost-intensive and has a much greater ecological impact, such as through its fuel consumption. The aim is to replace them, where possible, with local, alternative supply chains. This is where the collaborative project with DLR comes in. “We are taking the regional flooding in South Sudan, where large areas are cut off from conventional supply chains, as an example,” explains Armin Wedler, DLR Project Manager for AHEAD. “Our project outline describes a concept for using robotic, remote-controlled vehicles in this very impassable environment to allow the completion of the last, most dangerous part of the route by telepresence from a safe place.”

Amphibious all-terrain vehicles will be used, which WFP has already successfully deployed in several countries, including Mozambique and South Sudan, and most recently in Kenya. The off-road vehicles can maneuver in any terrain, even in water or swamps, and can overcome climbing obstacles of up to one metre. They are equipped with several sensors for real-time monitoring of their environment that allow them to be remote controlled automatically. This would eliminate the risk to drivers and still enable safe and effective delivery of life-saving supplies.

The WFP Innovation Accelerator sources, supports and scales high-potential solutions to end hunger worldwide. We provide WFP staff, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and non-governmental organizations with access to funding, mentorship, hands-on support and WFP operations.

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Sourcing, supporting and scaling high-impact innovations to disrupt hunger.