When the Avy Aera made a stopover in Benin

…working with authorities to expedite medical drone logistics

Remember the story we covered a while back about how the Benin government was trying drone technology to curb maternal mortality in its rural health centres?

If you don’t, here is a reminder: pregnant women in rural Benin are facing mortal problems, mainly caused by limited or non-existent access to healthcare products, especially blood bags during childbirth. Statistics from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) have it that nearly 400 out of every 100,000 live births in Benin suffer maternal morbidity.

In the Atacora region in north-western Benin, there are over 180 childbirth complications per month that could be helped if the affected women had access to blood products. Such supplies are available only at four designated storage centres of the region: in the regional capital Natitingou, in Kouandé, in Kérou and in Tanguiéta; and most of the women who need the blood are in the rural parts of the province; far removed from these centres.

Travel to and from the health centres with adequate facilities is sometimes out of the question too, because of unstable roads.

Besides, there are times too when even these centres that people rely on run out of stock, compounding the problem for pregnant women and new mothers.

Enter the drones.

While the Benin government and its health care partners were scratching their heads on how to get the medical supplies needed to save lives in rural Benin, drone technology was proposed as a solution.

After all, medical drones have been introduced in several African countries now and they seem to be doing well there.

“In Benin, there are many regions that are quite isolated, particularly in certain periods of the year,” said Djawad Ramanou, UNFPA Benin representative and lead on the drone project that has ushered in new hope for expecting mothers.

“In Firou, for example, there’s a small bridge that connects Firou to other communities, and during the rainy season the water levels rise and completely cut off the area 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 organisations that got chosen to join aboard as technological partner to a consortium that comprised the government, UNFPA Benin, and Japanese pharmaceutical company Takeeda were Global Partners and Benin Flying Labs.

Representing WeRobotics’ Flying Labs network in the West African Country, Benin Flying Labs is at the forefront of offering local drone and robotics solutions for various industrial, humanitarian and public safety problems that might need drone-based interventions.

Aside from building the local skills base through training youths to become conversant with drone and robotics technology, Benin Flying Labs has been helping local citizens with drone solutions for disaster relief and management, agriculture, environmental protection, search and rescue, and education.

Upon being presented with the urgent health problem facing the government, the drone company knew what to do.

 “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 a DJI Matrice 300 drone for the delivery of emergency essential products,” noted Benin Flying Labs in 2021.

But hold on – the M300 was to be used only to prove the concept that delivery drones do work; not that the partners were planning to deploy the industrial drone for actual deliveries.

“To do this, Global Partners had to adapt the drone to the needs of the mission. Since the drone was going to carry foreign objects, two very important factors to consider were i) weight centering and how it would affect 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 Matrice 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 trial phase went smoothly, prompting the parties to move to the next phase of the drone integration plan – finding a real medical drone to conduct proper medical delivery trials. Flying Labs Benin do have a delivery drone prototype they are developing; but given the urgency of the task at hand, they chose to work with an experienced medical drone developer with ready-made solutions that were ready to go as soon as the project needed them to.

And that was how Dutch drone company Avy came into the picture.

Based in Amsterdam, Avy develops and operates autonomous drones and aerial network systems for the medical, emergency logistics and emergency services industries. Last December, the company launched a docking station for their latest Aera drone, which enables the latter to operate autonomously without a pilot present.

The docking station is called the Avy Dock.

Well, we’re really bummed that Avy missed out on the opportunity to name their new drone nest The Aviary (they were beaten to it by Australian competitor Swoop Aero); but we are still delighted that they answered when Benin Flying Labs came calling.

The drone company also appreciated the urgent need for a faster means of medical transport to help the suffering women in rural parts of Benin.

“There is an urgent need to improve the accessibility to healthcare for remote areas in the Atacora region – especially for emergency situations,” the company said in a report about their contribution to the drone project, which was released on Tuesday.

“In collaboration with the Benin Ministry of Health, this proof of concept was initiated by the UNFPA Bénin, with the technical assistance of Global Partners (a local drone services company) and Benin Flying Labs, to tackle these healthcare challenges with the use of medical drone networks.

“The project initially started working with a quadcopter drone, but due to limitations regarding range, autonomy and payload capacity, Avy was brought into the second phase of the project to demonstrate the feasibility of the Avy Aera drone and the potential benefits for the targeted healthcare facilities.

“The Atacora Drone Network aims to deliver emergency obstetric and new-born care products, such as blood bags, oxytocin and liquid paracetamol. Having such a drone delivery service in place would minimise risk and increase predictability, a welcome feature for any medical practitioner dealing with cases where time is critical and medical supplies are essential.”

Crucially, Avy has experience working in Africa, having partnered the government of Botswana (through the health ministry), the UNFPA and the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST), UNFPA and Botswana Ministry of Health and Wellness, for the Drones for Health project, which aims to reduce the numbers of maternal deaths in Botswana by using drones to deliver health supplies and emergency commodities.

The Botswana project was officially launched on May 7 last year.

“During Phase II of the (Benin) project, the Avy team on the ground worked closely with UNFPA Benin and Global Partners. During this phase it was important to mobilise multi-sectoral stakeholders around the use of drones like local health teams, the Civil Aviation Authority and above all, local communities.

“Community sensitisation had been done prior to the project by the local UNFPA team through focus groups with two of the local communities.

“Phase II included safety and feasibility testing of the Avy Aera drone and was critical when exploring stakeholder acceptance as well as studying the potential costs and benefits of introducing drones in the region. The goal was to demonstrate that different use cases are sufficiently promising to justify further investment.”

After the paper work and community engagements were done, it was time to set the Aera loose into the Benin skies.

An eVTOL drone, the Aera was designed to fly 85km one way with a capacity to stay in the air for an hour on a single battery charge.

But the drone didn’t need to fly the maximum range in Benin, as the furthest destination it needed to reach was only 42km away. All in all, the drone flew a total of 229km in twelve flight missions around Atacora at maximum speeds of 23metres per second.

The flights were meant to deliver liquid paracetamol, blood samples and Covid-19 tests.

And when the results were finally in, it was not surprising that the drone deliveries were far faster and more effective when compared to road transport deliveries. The flights between Natitingou and Kouandé took 37 minutes; by car, the drive would have taken 85 minutes to cover the 43,2km distance. Similarly, it took the Aera just 26 minutes to fly the 38.9km between Kouande and Pehunco – a distance that would take 55 minutes by road.

“Providing more direct routes and higher average speeds, drones are twice faster when compared to road-based transportation,” Avy said in its report. “The frequency, punctuality and accessibility of aerial transportation could reduce pathology waiting times by 35-67 percent per sample.

“Moreover, it was found that the network could become cheaper per emergency flight if the assets and people employed were utilised to a maximum. An opportunity to add products on the flight back from facilities to the hub of the network (for example, laboratory samples) would increase the usage further beyond the scope of emergency deliveries and reduce the costs per case.”

Going forward, Avy noted that there needed to be a constant supply of medical supplies for drone technology to be effective in remote regions. Otherwise, if health centres run out of medical products like blood, liquid paracetamol; it would become a constraint that drone technology alone cannot solve. Centralised storage, control and distribution of blood products could help in this case.

Avy also ran into a few more problem during their sojourn in Benin.

“The first being the need for transfusion materials in all facilities that would be served by drones. This constraint is a key bottleneck for the implementation of an effective aerial logistics system. Without transfusion capabilities, drone delivery services do not make sense.”

It is a good point.

“The second is the need to connect the newly proposed system to existing digitisation efforts in the region so that medical goods stock management is addressed at the same time.

“Potential solutions to this problem are found in many ways, however the challenge for any policy maker in this region is to make sure that ongoing (digitalisation) projects are aligned with new technological solutions. Especially when it comes to the use of drones, maintenance and project continuity are of utmost importance for the improvement of healthcare accessibility. Hence, taking into consideration cost-effectiveness of the solution and durability of the project within the context of the national healthcare strategy is key flying forward.”

As the company itself testifies, Avy had a fantastic time working with Benin Flying Labs and the people of Benin in general, whose passion for the drone industry will surely lead to the development of a comprehensive ecosystem in the country.

Ouriel Hountondij, the coordinator at Benin Flying Labs expressed his delight with the experience and lessons learned while working with Avy.

“Working with Avy was a great experience,” he said. “The team were open-minded and ready to share, which allowed us to reach solution-based outcomes in the field of public health. This really fosters our desire to provide more for the rural population that fights so much every day for a living. We would be glad to have more of those moments we shared contributing to rural development based on technology.”

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