Humanitarian technology Serving those in need


In seeking to adapt new technologies to disaster response, Airbus and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have stepped up their collaboration.

Airbus CEO Tom Enders and IFRC Secretary General Elhadj As Sy signed an MOU in November 2015

It would be great to have an affordable little machine that analyses exhaled breath and to use it in remote corners of Africa so that we can instantly diagnose whether ­people are suffering from illnesses such as cancer and diabetes without having to take blood samples,” says Airbus Defence and Space e-nose project manager Viktor Fetter, dreaming of a future that, in actual fact, may not be too far away.

Fetter is currently working on the ‘e-nose’ project, developing a gas sensor that has already been successfully trialled in the International Space Station (ISS) and can directly detect microbiological contamination, such as bacteria and fungi with the potential to damage equipment and harm the health of astronauts.

Another avenue the e-nose project is exploring is how to use the device for breath gas analysis as a means of detecting diseases. The first step involves testing it in the ISS and measuring the oxidative stress of astronauts breathing in pure oxygen while undertaking a spacewalk. “We do translational science,” explains Fetter. “We go up to space and try to come back down to Earth with the technology all ready to be used, say, in hospitals.”

Promising technologies

Viktor Fetter and colleague test the e-nose in the ground model of the ‘Columbus Module’, the European module of the ISS

The e-nose is but one example of technologies with potential humanitarian applications that Airbus and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) are exploring with a view to improving disaster response. Fetter’s team is also working on the TransMADDS system, an innovative portable device that decontaminates and disinfects equipment and surfaces. The system involves spraying aerosols containing traditional agents such as hydrogen peroxide or bacteriophages—which attack bacteria only—to disinfect surfaces in record time.

Though the system was initially developed for space systems, it can also have civil applications, such as the disinfection of hospitals in response to epidemics. The device has been successfully trialled in laboratories in Germany and in a hospital in Mexico. The system is also slated to demonstrate its capabilities in a greenhouse in Antarctica as part of the ‘EDEN’ International Space Station project, a ground demonstration for plant cultivation technologies to produce safe food in space.

Another promising technology for humanitarian field workers is a wearable vest fitted with low-cost, readily available commercial sensors. In volatile settings, for example, the sensor system can assess workers’ physical and cognitive state to determine whether they may be in need of further assistance in the field.

Partnering for a better world

“We’ve worked with Airbus before on disaster response,” explains Shaun Hazeldine, Head of Innovation at the IFRC. “We’ve joined forces in a number of disasters and we decided to strengthen that cooperation and identify technologies for humanitarian use.”

The partnership showed what it could achieve in April 2015, when an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale hit Nepal, killing 8,000 people. In response, Airbus organised relief flights carrying equipment and food, while Airbus Helicopters supplied rotorcraft to operate in the areas affected and Airbus Defence and Space provided satellite images that were used to assess the extent of the damage.

“The Airbus Foundation regularly organises missions with airlines and NGOs for the delivery of humanitarian goods and equipment to the victims of natural disasters around the world,” says Andrea Debbane, the Foundation’s executive director.

That cooperation is now being stepped up. In November 2015 Tom Enders, the chairman of the Airbus Foundation and CEO of Airbus, and Elhadj As Sy, the Secretary General of the IFRC, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that extended their collaboration to cover, for example, the adapting of new technologies to
humanitarian uses.

The Airbus Foundation regularly organises missions with airlines and NGOs for the delivery of humanitarian goods and equipment to the victims of natural disasters around the world.

Andrea DebbaneFoundation’s executive director

“We see potential in many Airbus technologies, such as the e-nose, the TransMADDS system and water ana­lysis. They might sound like science fiction but they’re not. Some of the technologies Airbus has been able to develop are just amazing,” adds Hazeldine, who names Speetect as one of them. “It’s water-analysis technology that’s capable of detecting bacteria very quickly and can analyse up to 23 water samples in a matter of 20 minutes,” explains Agata Godula-Jopek, a fuel cells expert at Airbus Innovations.

Godula-Jopek lists a number of other technologies with possible humanitarian uses, among them 3D printers and the Quadcruiser, an unmanned airborne vehicle capable of VTOL and hover flight, which could prove extremely useful in supplying medical equipment and searching for missing people in natural disasters.

The spirit of the collaboration between Airbus and the IFRC is very much in line with a recent statement made by Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: “Technology is neither good nor bad, but it is powerful. It’s up to the people who develop and use it to determine what effect it has on the world.”

Manuel Ansede