Drone companies and the quest for medical delivery in Africa
It was just the thing you would have loved to see on a lukewarm Johannesburg mid-morning whose tepid sunshine you were likely never going to feel, because you were going to spent the day holed up in a conference room at Emperors Palace learning from the best.
The reason for this socially-distanced gathering was that professionals from various industries had returned for the 2021 edition of the Drones and Unmanned Aviation Conference, which could not have come at a more opportune time; given how industries has often turned to drone technology in the past year.
Of course, this being the trying period of life in the world where humans have to deal with a pandemic that refuses to go away as quickly as anyone would like, a number of speakers delivered their papers via video link, bummed that they could not be there in person to engage in lively discussions about the fate of unmanned aircraft in various industrial applications.
Andi Fisanich chose to deliver her paper differently.
True, she could not leave her base in Kasungu, Malawi, to be with her fellow industry peers in Johannesburg for the duration of the event – but the Head of Humanitarian Programmes at German drones-as-a-service start-up Wingcopter vicariously took her audience for some little pockets of sunshine, where she showed off the droneport from which her company operates; and also a few of her young friends, who she is confident will grow up to be excellent drone professionals one day.
It was a glimpse of Utopia.
A juicy morsel of what life could look like for rural Africa if aviation authorities on the continent allowed medical delivery drones to operate without strings and serve needy communities without hindrance.
As Andi revealed, Wingcopter has already tried to take medical logistics off the ground a few times since the Tanzanian pilot project that announced the arrival of the German start-up on the medical drone technology scene in 2017. Wingcopter has been to Vanuatu and Ethiopia since then; but despite their promising potential to make medical access easier for rural African populations, most of the medical drone logistics projects would fold as soon as donor funds dried up; with nobody willing to take up the bill to sustain operations beyond the initial donor-backed pilots.
It did not even matter that the difference between conventional medical delivery methods and the new technology of medical drones was something like four hours, as was the case with Wingcopter’s foray in Tanzania. The company worked tirelessly to prove how drone technology could cut delivery times from up to five ours to just a matter of minutes.
But when the time came for the pilot to end; it could not find a second life because nobody took it up.
Except in Rwanda, of course. But Rwanda was a different case altogether.
And Wingcopter are not in Rwanda.
“Our current projects (following spells in Tanzania and Vanuatu) have been in Malawi; the first one in lake Malawi, where we were delivering essential medicines from Nkhata Bay Hospital on mainland Malawi to Likoma Island to the north east,” Fisanich, who was speaking from Kasungu, said.
The programme in Nkhata was made possible through the sponsorship of the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Global Health Supply Chain Program-Procurement and Supply Management (USAID GHSC-PSM); which was exploring the use of drones for HIV/AIDS commodity deliveries to isolated and difficult-to-reach communities. Also, they wanted to better understand the potential to improve health outcomes in low resource settings.
“The Nkhata Bay District Hospital was identified as the most effective base of operations,” USAID said in its recent report about the drone project, which also involved Swoop Aero. “This location—in addition to being within comfortable range of both Usisya and Likoma Island – serves as the district’s centre for dispatch of commodities to local health facilities and HSAs, as well as a collection point for laboratory samples. The Nkhata Bay District Hospital also provided a locked workspace for storage of the drones and equipment and experiences consistent power supply for recharging the drone batteries. The northern site of Usisya was chosen as a battery recharging point, as well as a jumping off point for reaching the district-identified priority sites of Ruarwe and Khondowe.
“As this was the first time in Malawi that bidirectional health deliveries had been made outside of the drone corridor, a slow and incremental approach to drone flights was enacted in order to ensure safety. To further mitigate risk, the activity was designed to test flights extensively by conducting short test flights followed by increasingly longer test flights until the delivery/collection facility on the island was reached. The flight routes were also planned to operate primarily over water, and to avoid populated areas when flying over land, rather than to fly in a direct line for the entire route.”
Before the introduction of the unmanned aerial vehicles, the Likoma Island hospital of St. Peters would collect laboratory samples each Friday and keep them until a health worker found a spot on the weekly ferry between the island and the mainland district hospital in Nkhata Bay.
As fate would have it, one day the ferry broke down and therefore was unavailable for use by health care workers for several weeks.
Phase I of the Lake Malawi project bridged this gap, connecting the Nkhata Bay and Likoma Island District hospitals with daily deliveries and collections.
But as Andi would lament, the project died prematurely when the donor funds stopped coming. An eight-month period of sustained flights from June 2019 to February 2020, which had drones flying 19,750 km in 428 flights, carrying medicines, medical supplies, lab samples and test results to and from eight different locations.
For HIV Viral Load and Early Infant Diagnosis test results alone, the drones carried results for 225 patients, delivering diagnosis and treatment up to eight weeks earlier than in the past.
Sadly, this was another noble project that failed to live beyond its donor-sponsored timeline, after having helped thousands of lives for a short period of time.
Now it was back to the ferry for health workers.
And Wingcopter too had to move on.
“We then moved to Kasungu, and started doing operations at the UNICEF Humanitarian Drone Corridor. For the Kasungu operations, we are doing deliveries to three health centres – Kapelula, Kuwamba and Simulemba; and in twelve weeks, we have been able to complete 270 BVLOS flight missions and delivered 100kgs of medicine.”
There was a reason for this remarkable success, Fisanich said, and the magic word was funding from the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), which availed funds for an eighteen-month long pilot project; that has far been smoothly running with the partnership of UNICEF and support from the Malawi government – which, among other things, provided land for the opening of a drone academy and the largest drone corridor in the world.
The project is on hold right now, because, you know – COVID – which has disrupted a service that many in the region were starting to treat as a normality. But there is nothing the team on the ground can do about it, because their orders come from the funding authority, who is not comfortable with them working in the middle of a pandemic wave crest.
“What has happened with Wingcopter – and I’m sure a lot of cargo drone operators can relate – is that we have done a lot of short-term pilots; you do tremendous amounts of work for a six-month long project; getting all the stakeholders to be used to the everyday operations – and then having to close shop just like that, because the funding has dried up.”
Andi’s former work colleagues at USAID concur.
“Drones for cargo movement in international development have been tested for short periods of time, but rarely implemented consistently for an extended period. This has led to repeated proofs of concept without much added knowledge in the way of operational inputs specific to longer term staffing, drone maintenance, and financial planning such as would be required for replacement parts.”
Wingcopter has for now managed to get around this albatross because the German government has awarded them a grant that covers their Kasungu project for one-and-half years; and the company is grateful for it because it gives them enough time to at least build sustainable operations for the immediate term.
The question of what happens after this time has been left unanswered for now.
“Unfortunately, we do not see enough funding in the area of medical drone delivery,” Andi said. “We don’t see enough donors putting enough funding that would allow for operations to mature.”