AI-Powered robotic vehicles set to revolutionize food aid delivery in conflict zones

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A robotic system for performing different kinds of missions

An initiative to deliver food aid using AI-powered robotic vehicles is expected to be operational as early as next year. This pioneering project is being developed in response to the growing threats facing humanitarian workers in conflict and disaster zones. The World Food Programme (WFP) revealed this ambitious plan to Reuters in an interview with Bernhard Kowatsch, who leads the WFP’s innovation department.

In recent years, there has been an alarming increase in attacks against aid workers amidst an escalating number of violent conflicts, a level not seen since World War Two. The WFP, the United Nations’ food aid agency, sadly lost three of its workers in Sudan’s conflict earlier this year. Kowatsch commented, “Sometimes it’s too dangerous to send in a driver or WFP staff. So, using that technology could actually be a step change.”

These revelations were disclosed at a conference in Geneva, organised by the International Telecommunication Union. The event was held to promote the use of AI in achieving U.N. global goals, such as the elimination of hunger.

The robotic vehicles under discussion are equipped to handle both land and water, making them an ideal solution for difficult terrain. Capable of carrying approximately one to two tonnes of food, these trucks were initially conceived during the battle for Aleppo, Syria, between 2012 and 2016. During that time, aid workers faced immense challenges in delivering assistance to besieged parts of the city.

Kowatsch explained the limitations of air drops, which were expensive and required large open spaces, features that were not readily available in parts of Syria. As an alternative, these robotic vehicles present a more practical and cost-effective solution.

Approximately 50 of these vehicles are already being utilised in South Sudan, though they currently require human drivers. As part of the Autonomous Humanitarian Emergency Aid Devices (AHEAD) project, in collaboration with the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the WFP plans to trial these vehicles in a driverless capacity early next year.

The AI systems on these vehicles amalgamate data from various sources, including satellite and sensors, enabling remote drivers to control the vehicles effectively. However, the ultimate goal is full automation.

South Sudan, home to 7.7 million people who are experiencing severe food insecurity and where flooding frequently disrupts access, is set to be the first location for this innovative project. Kowatsch said, “AI is used to combine data gleaned from various sources including satellite and sensors, allowing remote drivers to steer the vehicles.”

This novel use of AI-powered technology could indeed represent a significant step towards providing aid to those in desperate need, mitigating the risks that aid workers face in dangerous zones, and contributing to the global goal of eliminating hunger.

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