Avy makes at stop in Benin

Cotonou, BENIN – It looks like Dutch drone company Avy’s medical drones will soon be traversing the Beninese skies, following the latest round of pilot tests to bring health care closer to the people of Benin.

In the uncertainty created by a global pandemic, health authorities in Benin have been so determined to keep medical supply lines open for new mothers in remote parts of the country that they resorted to literally strapping medical boxes to a DJI industrial drone to achieve their goals.

Right about the same time Avy were finalising plans with the government and related partners to start drone delivery operations in Botswana last year, health authorities and their partners in Benin were scratching their heads in search of new ways to deliver medicines during a pandemic that had made direct human contact impossible.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Benin on 16 March 2020, authorities knew the virus posed a dire threat to other health priorities – especially maternal and newborn health,” wrote the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) last December.

The UNFPA has been working with government and non-government organisations to improve healthcare access in remote and rural areas across Benin.

“The health system faced a shortage of personal protective equipment for health-care providers and a number of health facilities closed. The Cotonou Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de la Mère et de l’Enfant de la Lagune, for instance, was closed to pregnant women when a health worker fell ill with the virus and half the staff were quarantined.”

Alternative means of transporting medicines had to be found, and fast.

So they turned to drone technology.

The project involved the collaborative efforts of the Benin government and the UNFPA, in association with Japanese biopharmaceutical company Takeda’s global social responsibility program to ensure access to quality maternal and newborn health care.

On the drone technology side, the parties chose to work with Global Partners Benin, a local drone services company that gained its name after successfully applying drone-based solutions to industries that included agriculture, survey and mapping, and aerial photography.

As a proof of concept to show how medical drone logistics work, Global Partners initally whipped out its DJI Matrice 300, which in its wildest dreams may never have imagined medical supplies as part of its payload.

Sometimes you just have to think outside the box…

But that was exactly what they used the drone for, strapping boxes to its landing gear, which were then filled with mock medical supplies to be delivered to selected health centres.

“The drone project began its pilot testing phase in early 2021, using a drone that (could only go) a distance of 15km, carrying weight of up to 5kg,” said the UNFPA. “It relied on the local expertise of Global Partners, a start-up based in Benin that develops and provides drone technology for use in agriculture, surveillance and biodiversity projects.”

There are finer unmanned aerial vehicles in the world of course; specially made to deliver vaccines, tablets, blood and blood products, medical samples and all other supplies over greater distances, regardless of their special storage requirements; it has to be reiterated that the drone partner to the project flew the Matrice 300 only as proof that drone technology for medical purposes was a real option for healthcare access.

Said Global partners of the task that awaited them; “Given the constraints of the mission, the results of the sizing phase, the available budget, the regulatory requirements and considering the main objective of this project which is to develop a proof of concept in the Beninese context, the various stakeholders opted for the use of Matrix 300 for the delivery of emergency essential products.

“To do this, Global Partners had to adapt the drone to the needs of the mission. There are several factors to consider to ensure that missions are conducted safely. Since the drone will carry foreign objects, two very important factors to consider are i) weight centering and how it affects the flight of the aircraft and ii) overload control. Centering is crucial for stable hovering. If there is more weight at the front than at the rear, the flight is destabilized and there is a drag on the front side.

Drone overload can also create a variety of problems, among others: the altitude and speed of the flight is reduced; the autonomy of the drone is shortened; and manoeuvrability is decreased

“For the Matrix 300 selected for this project, it should be noted that these drones are normally designed for inspection and not the transport of packages. The technical team of Global Partners therefore did work to customise the drone, in order to transform it into a cargo-drone that could carry a load of up to 2.5kg.”

The intended area was mapped out using a drone.

After convincing the other parties as to the effectiveness of drone technology for medical logistics (fourteen incident flights to thirteen health centres did the trick), Global partners had to choose between bringing in a self-made long range delivery drone developed at the Eastern Kentucky University in the USA; or acquire a ready-made more suited medical delivery drone for more defining tests.

They chose the latter

And that was how Avy got to be in the picture.

“Before the new year, we had the honour of partnering up with UNFPA Benin, Benin Flying Labs and Global Partners to connect healthcare facilities with our drone network for urgent medical deliveries,” the company teased on its social media pages yesterday.

They stopped short of sharing more details about the latest partnership though, only teasing that they would make more information available in due course.

As you may have suspected, we have badgered them for a scoop, but they are yet to respond.

“In Benin, there are many regions that are quite isolated, particularly in certain periods of the year,” explained Djawad Ramanou, a UNFPA representative and lead on the drone project. “In Firou, for example, there’s a small bridge that connects Firou to other communes, and during the rainy season the water levels rise and completely cut off Firou from other villages. But with a drone we can reach the maternity ward there. Until now, if it rained, the hospital was cut off and patients weren’t able to get the care they needed.”

The use of drones to secure extra medical supplies can make all the difference in a health emergency. For example, blood supplies, which are a critical need in remote areas, are often needed when women experience postpartum haemorrhage – one of the leading causes of maternal death globally.

Germaine Balogoun, a midwife in Firou, described what happens when medical supplies run dry; “Without drones, if we run out of supplies, we have to quickly evacuate the patient to the nearest health centre in Kérou, which takes a long time. And it means that many may die while they are being transported to the hospital.

“That’s why the drone reduces the risk of maternal death in our health centre.”


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