By Nadia Papasidero

In emergencies, WFP gets food to where it is needed, saving the lives of victims of war, civil conflict and natural disasters. Yet in recent years, civil conflicts have grown both in number and in complexity. When taken together, it's clear that the world is facing a humanitarian emergency on a scale not seen since the Second World War. Millions of people have fled, and continue to flee, war-torn areas as violence and air strikes hit and aid fails to reach them in time.

As the Syrian civil war enters its seventh year, air strikes, difficult or blocked access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas, as well as challenging road conditions, have required humanitarian agencies to rethink the provision of food and relief items. Right now, in Syria, 4.7 million people are living in hard-to-reach or besieged areas. Their lives are threatened by lack of access to food, water, healthcare, and heavily disrupted infrastructure.

In February 2017 alone, the World Food Programme (WFP) brought food assistance to more than 3.5 million people in Syria. Yet, more is required - both in this crisis and in other conflict zones such as Iraq.  Continuous violence affects civilians, their houses, hospitals and neighbourhoods, and also makes air transport unsafe, and delays or prevents the arrival of convoys able to feed hundreds of thousands of people. The difficulties faced by UN agencies in gaining access to besieged areas have greatly challenged the UN and WFP’s logistical capability. Attacks on humanitarian convoys not only put the lives of aid workers at risk as they attempt to deliver vital aid supplies, but in some cases prove fatal.  Whilst these attacks have caused outrage within the humanitarian community and beyond, they have left aid agencies with the question of how to prepare for similar situations now and in the future, to deliver food assistance in the "last mile".

Taking Silicon Valley's Lead

Far away from modern conflict zones, Silicon Valley leaders such as Tesla, Google, Uber and other car manufacturers are radically changing the way we think and use self-driving technology. Google’s (now Waymo) driverless car technology has already ‘racked up’ more than two million miles of public road testing since 2009. Its prototype car has completely removed drivers from the equation, replacing the steering wheel and the pedals with tools for self-navigation. Instead of relying on human vision, a rotating rooftop camera with laser beams is used to build a 3D picture of cars, pedestrians and hazards on the road. Then, information gathered from the front camera, ultrasonic rear sensors, as well as in-built sensors for improved geospatial accuracy (combined with a GPS signal), is interpreted by the car’s computer for intelligent, fully autonomous decision-making.

As the technology is refined by competing companies the first fully autonomous self-driving car is expected to arrive on the market around 2020. Together with the ‘Smart Cities’ movement, plans to deliver a world where accidents and inefficiencies created by human error and fatigue become a thing of the past. With similar concerns around efficiency, comfort and safety, trucks are being tested to replace drivers and human error in long-haul journeys. Using self-driving trucks, Uber Freight is already delivering beverages across the USA without human input, whilst Volvo is testing the technology to innovate transport in the mining sector. 

Such innovative and disruptive solutions are currently far from being designed to help those in need. Frequently, new technologies or business models emerge to match and solve economic inefficiencies and primarily to bring a profit. From blockchain, to instant messaging, unmanned aerial vehicles and internet of things, many are the solutions that show an incredible potential to innovate and disrupt the humanitarian sector. In recent years, this has been WFP’s mission: to identify and test technologies that are yet to succeed in the humanitarian sector, to harness the opportunity to redesign and scale them to improve the lives of millions of people.

Autonomous driverless trucks are amongst the most-promising answers to the issue of assistance in dangerous or inaccessible environments, as access by road tends to be the most efficient and safest option to deliver food assistance to besieged areas on land. Preliminary research into a solution that could enable the delivery of humanitarian relief, not as vulnerable to air strikes as aviation, yet resilient to ambushes and capable of handling difficult terrains, has already led to the surfacing of a series of options that WFP is keen on delving into as quickly as possible.

Overcoming Multiple Challenges

Despite ongoing testing of the technology in other sectors, commitment to further research and demonstration is needed to accelerate the time to the deployment of the first ‘remotely piloted or self-driving truck’ for the delivery of humanitarian supplies. WFP wants to stay ahead of the search, using its unique competitive advantage in humanitarian logistics and its leading Global Fleet Management.

The challenges are manifold; from the political implications of unmanned vehicles travelling through contended areas, to the technical requirement for constant and reliable connectivity, and the logistic issue of ensuring safe distributions at destination. Designing a vehicle that can drive on unsteady grounds, resist armed attacks and be remotely controlled in an area of low connectivity, requires a longer investment to test different innovative ideas. Insurgencies, ambushes, air strikes and mechanical failures may not be problems easy to solve. Yet, the right solution will allow to save more lives, of both humanitarians and civilians, which is why WFP feels the urgency and motivation to lead the search for an encompassing solution.

Leading the Search for Solutions

With these ambitious plans in mind, efforts have been stepped up to recruit equally ambitious partners. As part of this, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is preparing to support WFP in this important endeavour. Harnessing DLRs expertise in mobility research as well as space technology, WFP aims to develop a blueprint for remotely piloted and self-driving technology for emergency response in inaccessible areas. A recent joint workshop at DLR’s centre in Oberpfaffenhofen Bavaria, Germany, highlighted both parties’ interest and ability in working towards an effective solution.

By joining forces WFP and DLR may strategically assess and conquer key issues around vehicle requirements, field sensing, navigation, data and telecommunication links, accelerating their efforts for the most resilient and self-driving truck, and an equally smart support infrastructure.

As the desire for peace and food security grows, so does the incentive to prepare for disasters of any kind, and avert tragedies through rapid response. In this collaborative effort, WFP welcomes partners committed to escalate the search, and turn a vision into a concrete solution.

For more information on how WFP is developing self-driving technology, please contact