By Pel Beyak
Health/Science Reporter

In the bleak light of Cyclone Nargis’s strike in Myanmar and the recent earthquake in China which collectively killed hundreds of thousands, humanitarian workers face both logistical and political obstacles. Overcoming these barriers is the key to saving lives, either in the aftermath of a natural disaster or the continuing struggles of a developing country to survive. The exhausted people of disaster areas could see the effects of humanitarian aid by land and by air.

“I wanted to make something relevant to the truly urgent issues that I saw in the world today,” Andrew Leinonen wrote in an e-mail to City on a Hill Press. Leinonen is a recent graduate in industrial design in Ontario, Canada, who designed the solar-powered blimp named “Solarial.” This blimp can fly to disaster areas or refugee camps around the world.

Solarial will be able to produce electricity with 180 square meters of solar panels on its top, and will bring energy to the ground by lowering a “power box.” The device can harness its 125 kilowatt-hours of electricity to any electrical device, from medical refrigerators to water pumps.

Leinonen wants to see the airship industry revived, but is frustrated at seeing the only new proposals for airships costing upward of $100 million.

“That’s no way to rejuvenate an industry,” he said.

Leinonen’s is one of many recent sustainability-geared inventions related to disaster relief. Though the Solarial is still in its design stages, bicycle-powered ambulances made of bamboo are being used in the African countries of Namibia and Malawi.

Chris Ryan and Philippa Mennell, two graduates of the Emily Carr Institute for Design in Canada, improved on an ambulance project so that it was made out of a plentiful local material, bamboo. The ambulance attaches to the back of a bike so that a sick or injured person can be moved through remote areas without cars.

Pat Bayes is the spokesperson for Design for Development Society, the organization that is building the “Bambulance.”

“There’s a growing awareness about what a tremendous resource bamboo is as a building and design material,” Bayes said. Bamboo can grow three to four feet a day, and is plentiful in many regions of the world.

A steel-frame version of the bike-driven ambulance is already in use in Malawi and Namibia. Because its design is not proprietary, the number in use has jumped from the original five. There are now 60 being pedaled through the streets of the two African countries.

Design for Development’s bamboo-based endeavor will be introduced this summer to certain areas of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. The team of two graduates will work with local organizations, teaching them to build the Bambulances. Mennell believes that she will be altering the ambulance to fit the needs of the people using it when in Kenya.

“I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how the design changes when we’re actually in the field,” Mennell said.

Ryan and Mennell will be setting up a system to build five prototype Bambulances, then monitoring their success.

Bayes is optimistic about the role Design for Development will play in bringing medical advancements to developing countries.

“What we’ll be doing is helping them roll with it,” Bayes said. “If you’ll pardon the pun.”