A World Food Programme (WFP) pilot project is set to push internet access during emergencies to new heights thanks in part to drone technology.
By Tom Mallah
For humanitarians in an emergency, connectivity helps underpin coordination efforts. For someone who’s lost it all, staying in touch with family harbors hope, and knowing what local support is available is often a first step towards recovery.
While demand for reliable connectivity in humanitarian contexts is growing steadily, access is often constrained to emergency operations centers and a community hotspot. But that might be about to change.
Patrick McKay, WFP Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) data ops manager, has witnessed firsthand connectivity’s impact, and its limitations in emergencies over the years. He was in Mozambique following Cyclone Idai in 2019. “Internet access was restricted to the EOC at the airport in Beira. The overcrowded conditions made it difficult, and the limited coverage meant less mobility to operate effectively across the city,” he says.
All told, 1800 people from 440 organizations accessed the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster’s (ETC) connectivity services during the response. Mozambique was also the first large-scale emergency where WFP deployed drones to help assist local emergency efforts.
In 2020, Patrick successfully applied to join the WFP Innovation Accelerator’s Bootcamp to develop his idea and pilot the first phase of a bold initiative with the potential to dramatically increase internet coverage during emergencies. It was a much anticipated first step on a path he’d been eager to tread.“Integrating connectivity with drone technology is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I joined the UAS team,” Patrick says. “While the systems used today by the ETC and WFP provide reliable internet under difficult conditions, extending the coverage remains a challenge.”
The Rapid Response Connectivity Carrier, affectionately nicknamed R2C2, is a tethered drone with a long-range Wi-Fi transmitter. The cable links both power and data connectivity, enabling it to stay up in the air and transmit 24hrs a day.
The initial phase of the project is meant to improve access to connectivity for affected communities including women and people who cannot travel to an Internet hotspot. It will cover an area of 12 km² radius with Internet connectivity, bolstering coverage by roughly 17 times what is currently being provided in emergencies.
By extending low-bandwidth access for text messaging platforms like WhatsApp, R2C2 promises to drastically increase the number of people in need who can get connected, check in with loved ones, access information and provide feedback to humanitarian organizations on the ground. The initiative embodies WFP’s ability to meld innovation with existing technology towards saving lives and changing lives.
The second phase of the project aims to equip R2C2 with cellular connectivity that could cover an area of 80 km² at the onset of an emergency, enabling humanitarians to stay connected when local networks are down. ETC partner Ericsson Response is also developing an affixable radio transmitter for security telecoms, which will likely improve how we keep personnel safe and mobile.
R2C2 is designed to be portable, is compatible with existing technology and easy to operate on the ground. It plugs into solutions currently used by WFP and the ETC during emergencies including VSATs and power generators. The equipment footprint is small enough to fit in two suitcases while the small batteries fall within airline restrictions, making it convenient to transport and easier to clear customs. And since R2C2’s connectivity is restricted to Wi-Fi for the moment, its deployment circumvents potential licensing issues with local mobile network operators.
It’s not all blue skies before the initiative can get off the ground. Even if R2C2 remains in a fixed in-air position, clearances with authorities will still be required and a certified drone operator will need to remain onsite to ensure flight safety. Tethered drones that can handle both the weight and continuous flying are also costly. And if R2C2 hopes to one day offer cellular and radio security communications to humanitarians, frequency allocation and licensing will need to be negotiated with national governments.
Still, the idea of expanding access to emergency connectivity from a few hundred people to potentially tens of thousands is worth piloting into reality. “It’s like having a 100m tall antenna in your bag. With the right approach including working ahead of time with local aviation authorities and standard operating procedures in place, R2C2 could be safely deployed in minutes to help reconnect entire cities during an emergency when local networks are down” Patrick says.
This flying Wi-Fi solution is set to be a first, including in the humanitarian sphere. The WFP Drones team will run an R2C2 drone later this autumn in a controlled environment in France. If all goes well, it could be scaled up soon and prepositioned in high-risk regions as part of WFP’s wider emergency preparedness efforts.
For now, there’s good reason to be excited about R2C2’s buzz.