UNICEF Namibia looking for partners for medical drone deliveries

The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund must be thanking their lucky stars every day for drone technology.

For drones have proved instrumental in the organisation fulfilling its wish to avail healthcare implements to all corners of the world – especially in areas that were previously impossible to get to.

But the advent of medical drones has bridged that last mile gap between patients and medical supplies, which has so often been the difference between life and death in many rural communities in Africa.

Think of the Madagascan rainforest, where cargo drone manufacturer AerialMetric, its alter ego, Madagascar Flying Labs and UNICEF have been working tirelessly to make timely deliveries of vaccines and other medical supplies to remote locations surrounded by thick forests.

Such innovations have enabled AerialMetric to push the boundaries of their drones’ capabilities; like the recent development where they increased the flight range of their drones to more than 200 kilometres.

There have been similar developments in Malawi too, where UNICEF teamed with German drone services provider Wingcopter for a pilot project to deliver medicines in rural parts of the country.

And now, Namibians are about to be the latest beneficiary of the UNICEF drone-based largesse.

Working with the Namibia Institute of Pathology and the John Hopkins University Medical Drones, UNICEF have announced that they are looking for a partner to provide drone for last mile medical delivery in the southern African country.

“UNICEF Namibia in partnership with Namibia Institute of Pathology (NIP) and John Hopkins University Medical Drones is looking for an international entity, considered as a lead vendor, for last-mile drone delivery services in Namibia,” the organisation said. “The entity is required to have a local partner (e.g. a sub-contractor or a partner organisation), which can assist in service provision. The lead vendor and their local partner are required to run sustained drone delivery operations that deliver efficient, quality, and timely technical services for four months.”

We have to admit that we are a little hurt by “international entity” part, especially given that WeRobotics have been working hard trying to equip Namibia Flying Labs – and the rest of the Flying Labs network – for when such opportunities arise. Being relegated to the role of just a sidekick on a project that is will benefit your fellow citizens, when you can easily be the main actor, will surely sting a little.

Perhaps Flying Labs Namibia is not yet ready for the project of a magnitude that UNICEF are looking to embark on. After all, delivery drone partners only started joining the flying labs network late last year – perhaps a little too late for their colleagues in Namibia to lead drone-based medical delivery in remote parts of the country at this time.

“This project aims to use drones for the delivery of cold-chain and non-cold-chain medical commodities, including, but not limited to, patient testing samples, testing kits- including COVID-19 testing kits, medical supplies, vaccines and other medicines to and from five local health clinics (Schuckmansburg; Impalila; Kanono; Imbalasinte; and Itomba) to the main laboratory in Katima Mulilo. 

Annual floods make roads inaccessible for over six months of a typical year in the region, cutting off communities from access to vital health and laboratory diagnostic services.

“Schuckmansburg is in the north-east corner of Namibia, near the Zambezi River,” said Medical Drones – whose personnel visited the area four years ago – about of the areas they intent to deploy the drones to.

“For ten months of the year, the area is surrounded by flood waters. Each trip to retrieve pathology specimens starts by heading North across the river into Zambia. At first, the road is smooth; but most of the time is spent driving over heavily potholed roads. After 70 kilometres, it is time to cross the river again – without a bridge this time.

“(The last time they were there) the local police… offered to drive us on their boat. We wound through trees and grass over a path that changes as the water level fluctuates.

“But we finally got to the village.

“We think unmanned aircraft has good potential to serve this community, and the drone process established here can be rolled out to a dozen other villages in the region.”

Companies hoping to get on the project have until the 30th of May to submit their applications.

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