Rocketmine, RigiTech conduct drone delivery demos for health sector in South Africa

For a country that might have been the first on the continent to recognise the potential of drone technology in medical deliveries, it is astounding that South Africa still has no infrastructure on the ground for medical drone logistics within its borders.

As of now, the only claim the country can lay on medical drone logistics is through the one drone in the employ of the South African National Blood Services.

Yet even that machine can legitimately lament that she had not yet stretched her wings enough – because the SANBS is still waiting for its operator’s certificate, for which it applied about three years ago.

It is a crying shame, because the world seemed so alive with opportunities for the South African medical drone in 2015 when Emeritus Professor at Wits University, Barry Mendelow gave a lecture in Johannesburg about the research he had been doing for the greater part of a decade, in partnership with stakeholders who included arms manufacturer, Denel.

Their work resulted in the development of the e-Juba, a preliminary proof of concept UAV designed to facilitate the transportation of microbiological test samples for tuberculosis patients from the 5,000 remote rural clinics to the 603 National Health Laboratory Service Laboratories (NHLS) dotted around the country.

In 2009, the NHLS approached aircraft solutions provider, S-Plane Automation, to create a small, inexpensive unmanned aircraft system to transport sterile medical samples between more than 1,500 rural clinics and laboratories.

“The resulting system, named Nightingale, is an incredibly reliable aircraft, capable of enduring extreme punishment in remote parts of South Africa,” Professor Mendelow said at the time. “Nightingale was a resounding success. It completed a two-month-equivalent operational field trial between a clinic and a laboratory on the West Coast of South Africa with a 100 percent success rate under extreme environmental conditions.”

Way beyond its time, the e-Juba never saw enough of the day light

More than ten years since this promising start, the country has disappointingly stagnated on the delivery drone front, all the gains killed in part by the regulatory framework which outlawed beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights in South Africa, rendering the revolutionary breakthrough useless.

Attempts by fast-growing drone logistics provider Zipline to break into the South African market were rebuffed by government, and now the country has to play catch up with pioneers like Rwanda and Ghana, who invested in in the technology and are now reaping the benefits. In Ghana for example, the government with the help of Zipline quickly gobbled up its share of the COVID-19 vaccines – dispensing nearly 850,000 doses to date.

How it must feel right now to be Professor Mendelow; watching a technology you spend years advocating for benefiting everybody else, but your own home.

But there could be light on the horizon yet.

If Delta Drone International’s Rockemine have their way, the delivery drone situation in South Africa might be back in the headlines soon.

In collaboration with Swiss drone logistics company RigiTech, Rocketmine recently conducted successful delivery drone demonstration in full view of health stakeholders in South Africa. The hope is that industry players in healthcare delivery might see value in the impact delivery drones have on people’s lives and invest in them as an important infrastructure in their repertoire.

“In a joint demonstration near Johannesburg, South Africa, RigiTech delivery drones supervised by Rocketmine drone operators ferried samples between two locations fully autonomously,” Rigitech said in a statement. “The event took place in March 2021 in front of regional healthcare professionals, directors of South African diagnostic laboratories, hospitals and blood logistics services.

“A complete aerial medical logistics solution was put to test – RigiTech’s Minto drones and operators from both teams demonstrated safe deliveries multiple times. These demonstration flights illustrated how the technological components of hardware, software, regulations and operations were implemented bringing to life the concept of a drone health logistics service.”

How will the latest attempt to introduce medical delivery drones in South Africa fare?

The drone maker says the demonstrations also succeeded in convincing those present how drone deliveries saved time, through simple and fast on-demand delivery processes. Demonstrators were able to do this by showing the operations of the purpose-built mobile application, connected directly to the live inventory of the supply warehouse.

“Depending on the route and available infrastructure, drone-based delivery can cut delivery times and costs by a factor of 10 compared to traditional transportation methods.”

Live data on the flight’s progress, sent from the RigiCloud software to Rocketmine’s monitoring system through a secure API directly in the cloud, allowed for a smooth and reliable operation.

“Drone delivery is not just about the drone; it involves a close connection between the vehicle, the software controlling the fleet, airspace integration, regulatory approval and local maintenance,” RigiTech said. “This partnership will assure synergy between RigiTech’s drones and software with the complexities of regulatory approval and local operation managed by Rocketmine. The RigiCloud, the operations side in charge of all regulatory procedures and local maintenance are part of this integrated solution that made this operation possible.”

We wait to see if the latest pitches from the medical drone industry made their mark on the health industry and on aviation authorities. There will be more input about delivery drones in the medical space at the Drones and Unmanned Aviation Conference in Johannesburg in June. Wingcopter, which has been operating in Africa for three years now and has unveiled a new drone for its delivery operations, will be attending as the keynote speaker.

It is a great opportunity for the health industry to learn from a leading stakeholder in delivery drone technology. You can book your seat for the conference here.

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