Medical drones to cover more ground in DRC

Kinshasa, DRC – following a successful two-year trial period, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – in partnership with VillageReach, a non-governmental organisation concerned with delivering primary health care access to remote corners of the world – has launched fully-fledged medical drone delivery operations to remote communities in Équateur province, to the North West of the country.

With a current fleet comprising drones covering 22,000 square kilometres, the drone operations will now be the main go-to mode of medical transport deliver health products on-demand for 70 health facilities, serving over half a million people. The drone program will also help to monitor vaccine-preventable diseases such as polio, measles, yellow fever, HIV, and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, and potentially COVID-19.

Delivering health products in Équateur, a large region blanketed by dense rainforest, has been a challenge for a long time. The region relies heavily on the Congo River and other waterways for transportation, making the ground travels from the provincial capital, Mbandaka, to remote communities arduous. Internet and phone connectivity is poor too; so the introduction of medical drones will ensure health facilities have adequate supplies of immunisation products to make them readily available for anybody who needs them.

Provided by Australian medical drone logistics company Swoop Aero, and flying under the banner of the Drones for Health Program, the unmanned medical rescuers have made 82 round-trips since December 2020 from seven drone hubs, transporting 32kg of vaccines and personal protective equipment (PPE) to fourteen health facilities and returning with lab samples and reports. Two months of life-saving vaccines were delivered allowing more than 620 children to be vaccinated.

“The integration of drones into DRC’s health supply chain is a significant step toward equitable access to health care for the country,” said the country’s Minister of Health, Dr. Eteni Longondo. “The commencement of these flights means thousands of children will have increased access to immunisation services. It also means that there is an additional mechanism in place for the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine distribution.”

Operated by a fully local team of four operators and two pilots trained by Swoop Aero (with additional manpower training coming from the health department and VillageReach), the company’s drones have vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability, and can fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) at speeds of up to 115km per hour. Swoop Aero has been operating drones in the DRC since 2019 when they won a global tender to deliver medicines in the country. Their drone technology is versatile and can be used in low-resource and challenging environments and allows for quick transfer of operations to local workforce, including the capability to 3D print parts when needed for in-country maintenance.

Equateur provincial governor, Bobo Bokolo Bolumbu was thrilled to get the programme finally up and running.

“It is a privilege to be a part of such a historic program, being the first province in DRC to use drones to address transportation challenges in our province”, the governor said. “Much needed health products such as vaccines, masks, and lab samples will now be delivered to remote parts of the province, benefiting our communities that have also mobilised local resources in support of the program in various ways such as building floating landing areas for the drone.”

The deliveries are part of an initiative launched in the DRC in 2017 – known as New Generation Supply Chain – where VillageReach partnered with the national and provincial governments to create efficient medical supply chains to usually inaccessible remote areas. Expanding drone integration into Equateur province has been a two-year love affair, which began with trials in 2019. The second phase of trials took off early last year, and – with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Patrick J. McGovern Foundation; Crown Family Philanthropies; and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – persevered through the pandemic heyday.

VillageReach has similar projects going in Malawi, Mozambique and the Central African Republic.

“As we have seen with COVID-19, health care challenges continue to change and require responsive and flexible networks,” said Freddy Nkosi, VillageReach DRC Country Director. “Because investments into the health system were started at the right time by the Minister of Health, the supply chain system is in a mature position to have innovative solutions, such as drones, operationalised. And with the pandemic this will be incredibly important.”


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