Assessing the impact of drones on healthcare delivery

Of late, discussions on the future of drone technology in logistics seem to have returned to the fore, no doubt egged on by an announcement by Amazon that the online retailer will finally be launching its long-awaited drone deliveries sometime this year.

Opponents of drone technology in package delivery and last mile logistics industry have often sighted what they term a spectacular collapse of the Amazon drone project, which was so big on promise at its inception in 2013, but has delivered next to nothing so far.

The online retail conglomerate’s project in Europe suffered a still birth, while the company itself has burned through at least twenty drone prototypes, none of which have seen the light of day in a live pilot.

Besides, analysts that offer a dim view of drone logistics often stick to their applications in luxury package deliveries, like coffee, groceries and other retail packages that are offered by the likes of Amazon (and even then, Wing has launched its operations in Australia and the US with a measure of success).

What these opinions – like this one given by the New York Times recently – often pay lip service to, or totally ignore, is the impact drone technology has made in remote parts of the world; especially in delivering emergency medical supplies in Africa.

Actually, the New York Times opinion piece prompted prominent drone technology expert Harrison Wolf to publish his own counter viewpoints in defence of delivery drones.

Governments, drone logistics companies and beneficiaries of medical drone logistics may not need more convincing, but one organisation has now committed itself to exploring the impact of drone technology on medical delivery, through a “project that is now in its final phase of mapping the real-life journey of transporting vaccines (cold chain requirements) from the factory, in Europe, to the patient, in a remote village in Malawi, Africa.”

Pharma.Aero is an association that links airports, pharmaceutical shippers, and other cargo stakeholders from around the world to ensure the smooth transportation of medicine, cures and vaccines from where they are manufactured to the places that need them most.

It is Pharma.Aero that has partnered with healthcare non-profit VillageReach, medical drone logistics company Swoop Aero, and UPS Healthcare to launch The UAV Project, which seeks to explore and identify the key strengths and weaknesses of transporting health products using drones.

The organisation further describes itself as the place where LifeScience and Medtech shippers, IATA CEIV cargo firms, airport operators and logistics specialists can collaborate, coordinate projects, address challenges and create supply chains to transport medicine and healing across the planet.

“Cargo Drones have demonstrated the ability to provide low-cost, reliable and just-in-time delivery to difficult to reach areas,” the organisation says. “These aspects are ideally suited for the transport of medical goods for both routine public health needs as well as for humanitarian emergency preparedness and response.  

“With 3.4 billion people living in such areas and disposable income rising, the need for rural access to reliable healthcare services is increasing. The project initiates the potential use of UAV in the Life Science and Medtech Airfreight industry.

“Our aim is to collaborate with all members of the supply-chain to reduce the delivery time of pharmaceuticals using innovative solutions such as drones. And by this, understand the opportunities to link the traditional airfreight business model and the drone technologies.”

Now in its third and practical mapping phase – having worked the theoretical bits last year – the project is managed by long time medical drone proponent Dr. Olivier Defawe who has been with VillageReach as the organisation’s Drone for Health Lead since 2015.

Drones are better and safer at delivering medicine than using canoes

“We want to explore the drone’s potential of transforming the local, the regional, and even the global supply chain to improve equitable access to health products and health care that people around the world deserve,” Dr Defawe says. “You need to think out of the box to improve equitable access to health products. Over the past six years, we have conducted five different projects to generate evidence that it is possible – with the right technology, the right enabling environment, and the right partners – to fly drones safely and reliably in Africa.

“We are not trying to replace the motorcycle or the truck. We are not trying to serve every single health facility. The drone is an additional mode of transportation that is complementary to other land-based traditional means of transport. In Malawi, we use drones for on-demand transports, or for emergencies, including seasonal destruction of the infrastructure.”

On a personal note, we really would not mind if drones replaced canoes as a means of transport for medicines urgently needed in communities that have no other reliable alternative transport. Drones would be a really good option too for delivering medical supplies during wet seasons when some roads are impassable.

“This year, for example, a health facility in southern Malawi had all access roads damaged for almost five months (a tropical cyclone battered parts of the country in January). The facility has been unable to even send an ambulance for emergencies, including maternity cases, from December to the end of May.

“Throughout this period, the facility was heavily reliant on drone operations for emergency supplies (Oxytocin, antibiotics, lab samples, vaccines).”

Perhaps because it has the largest testing drone corridor in the world, Malawi has been a good playground for medical drone companies, which have worked well with the government to supply rural health facilities with medicines, vaccines and other important supplies need for healthcare delivery.

Such companies comprise Swoop Aero, Wingcopter, and of late, Jedsy; with Wingcopter making solid strides to increase its fleet of drone in Africa to a whooping 12,000.

Added to AerialMetric, Zipline and Avy, they form part of a rising medical drone logistics contingent that has found a home on the African continent and is actually taking this success back to Australia, Europe and North America.

Early this year, Swoop Aero’s operations in Malawi marked another important milestone, by successfully delivering the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines that require ultra-cold supply chain conditions, a first in in the country.

“This success opened the door for imagining progress in multiple directions,” says Pharma.Aero. “Could the drones be further integrated and cover earlier segments of the supply chain? Is there an opportunity to seemingly connect traditional airfreight with drone logistics for a more efficient, agile and resilient end to end supply chain?”

We hope the project will provide answers to these important questions.


Leave a Comment


Welcome! Login in to your account

Remember me Lost your password?

Lost Password