African countries to use drones for lifesaving vaccines

Africa drones vaccines

The use of drones to deliver medical supplies to remote communities in Africa is not a new phenomenon. However, the advent of the world’s first malaria vaccine will likely start some of the biggest operations to date.

Governments, start-ups and global logistics players are working together to deliver medical supplies and vaccines, in several African countries. The new malaria vaccine is to be administered through four doses over an 18-month period, making it a complex vaccine as well as posing intricate logistics requirements. There are many barriers to this logistics operation such as high temperatures, poor infrastructure and unknown demographics. Several companies have already established operations in African countries and have the capabilities to advance further into delivering vaccines and supplies as well as other medical operations.

UPS, for example, is set to work with health workers and drone start-ups in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, to distribute the innovative vaccine. The company is already involved in training government officials to leverage logistics systems in the management and distribution of medical supplies. The company also funds IT developments in software that utilises AI for alerts and analysing trends in usage. This allows reorders to be made automatically and in-time, avoiding shortages. 

Global player DHL is an example of a logistics company working with a drone manufacturer. In October last year, DHL and the German drone manufacturer Wingcopter launched the DHL Parcelcopter 4.0 in East Africa. Over a six-month period, they tested the delivery of medicines using a drone to an island in Lake Victoria. The autonomous Parcelcopter can complete a 60 km flight in 40 minutes on average allowing essential medicine to be delivered to the most remote locations i.e. Ukerewe island district of Lake Victoria.

An example of a start-up operating drones in the region is Zipline. The company manufactures and operates drones for the delivery of medical products. It launched its operations in Rwanda in 2016, where it transported blood to remote field hospitals throughout the country. Zipline’s 12 kg drones have a 6-foot wingspan and haul cardboard cargo boxes with wax paper parachutes, carrying blood, vaccines, HIV medications, and other supplies like IV tubes. They have a maximum payload of 1.5 kg. The company recently began working in Ghana where the use of drones has meant a health clinic in the remote village of Danteng is fully stocked with provisions on a just-in-time basis, saving the population from traveling for healthcare.

There are many advantages to the use of drones in remote African locations. The ability to get medicine to communities in such small amounts of time can be lifechanging and lifesaving. The use of drones in ‘testing’ environments, like equatorial heat, demonstrates their abilities and the advancements in technology that can be transferred to different scenarios. In addition, operating and training people in these countries to operate the drones provides jobs and passes on knowledge, that again can be used elsewhere.

The disadvantages of this lie in volume. The drones can be expensive to manufacture, and the logistics operations can be extensive and expensive to setup. Most African countries’ populations live rurally. This translates as a huge amount of people. In Ghana alone, 43.3% of the some 30m people live in the countryside. The use of drones would dramatically improve the healthcare facilities for so many, but this technology isn’t necessarily feasible. Large logistics companies now need to think implementing healthcare logistics on a broader and wider scale that can reach the many.

The innovation of drones is a positive step for the participating logistics companies in terms of advancing their capabilities in humanitarian aid logistics. The enormity of the complex malaria vaccine will test company’s capabilities and it will be interesting to see which companies succeed.

Source: Transport Intelligence, November 07, 2019

Author: Holly Stewart