Humanitarian Action

Medicines from the sky: how drones can save lives

People watch as a drone, of US company Zipline, takes-off from an operations center in Muhanda, Rwanda October 12, 2016, on its way to deliver blood supplies to remote hospitals. Picture taken October 12, 2016. REUTERS/James Akena - D1BEUHWYMGAB

A drone takes-off in Muhanda, Rwanda, on its way to deliver blood supplies to remote hospitals Image: REUTERS/James Akena

Craig Kennedy
Senior Vice President, Global Supply Chain Management, Merck Sharp & Dohme
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Humanitarian Action

  • From COVID-19 to cholera, health crises expose unequal access to care.
  • With the right regulations and technology in place, drones could be used to deliver medicines when and where people need them most, providing a new approach for healthcare delivery during disasters and disruption.

Much of the world’s population lives without regular access to essential healthcare services. Nearly half (44%) of all people on the planet live in rural areas., with only a third living within two kilometres of an all-season road. People living in these communities face devastating health challenges, with poor infrastructure and failing ground transport networks often resulting in a lack of supplies and care – and that’s on an average day.

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But what happens when disaster strikes and infrastructure collapses completely? Consider the current COVID-19 pandemic, which highlights the breakdown of supply chains in securing PPE, as well as the many disasters that have come before it: Hurricane Maria, which battered Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in 2017; the earthquake and resulting tsunami in Indonesia in 2018; or Cyclone Idai, which caused severe flooding in four countries in Africa in 2019 and gave way to a massive cholera outbreak. The past few years have witnessed two of the deadliest Ebola outbreaks in history, which crippled the healthcare system and society at large in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Medical treatment and obtaining the right supplies in these circumstances quickly changes from difficult to impossible — just look at the major gaps communities across the globe today face in securing PPE. But we can and have overcome tough supply chain challenges before. One example is in the fight against Ebola, where stakeholders have come together and leveraged data across communities on outbreak intensity to create informed response strategies, ensuring that medicines and vaccines are deployed to areas where they are most needed. It’s not perfect but having a global network – and the ability to shift supply from one country to another – is essential and goes far to combat disease.

Still, what’s clear is that the traditional approaches for connecting and supplying people with care and medicines are not just antiquated, they are increasingly inadequate. This is where we have a new possible solution - namely, drones - to address this challenge and bring medicines to patients faster, when they need them the most.

A solution is in the sky

Drones are an emerging solution which makes particular sense in a disaster setting. Unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, have the potential to enable faster, safer delivery of critical medicines and vaccines and bypass impacted infrastructure on the ground. Organizations are working together across a variety of collaborative projects to experiment and advance drone technology.

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My company has also been participating in this work and our latest test flight achieved an important milestone: last year, together with several partners, and following previous tests to Puerto Rico post Hurricane Maria, we successfully flew a drone to the Bahamas over open water beyond the operator’s line of sight. Today, it is fairly typical to maintain a temperature range of between 2-8 degrees Celsius within the payload of a drone. However, on this flight, the cold-chain delivery technology onboard allowed for precise temperature control at minus 70 degrees Celsius, the temperature required for storing and transporting some life-saving vaccines. This success proves the feasibility of using drones in the future to deliver vaccines and temperature-dependent medicines to remote locations – a practical advance that has major implications.

Others are investigating how to use drones to close gaps in healthcare access. At a panel discussion on this topic at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, Deputy Executive Director Charlotte Petri Gornitzka discussed how UNICEF has used drones to transport blood samples across Malawi, Kazakhstan and Sierra Leone. She also recounted the first successful delivery of a vaccine by drone to Vanuatu, a small country in the South Pacific.

Meanwhile, the first broad Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval for drone delivery was granted in the US, and in Rwanda, drones are being regularly deployed to transport blood and medicines to hospitals in remote regions.

Global reported natural disasters by type
Global reported natural disasters by type Image: Our World in Data
Seizing the benefits on a global scale

Drones are poised to positively affect humanitarian efforts. However, we need to be working now to ensure we can use them for more regular operations around the world. The G20 governments’ recent call for collective action on COVID-19, including cooperation with the private sector, increases the need for stepping up support for emerging and developing countries facing the health, economic, and social shocks of the virus.

But such innovation does not come without challenges.

There are technical challenges that must be addressed to achieve drone delivery of medical supplies at scale. This includes restrictions on drone size, range and payload, and take-off and landing permissions, as well as security risks, such as hacking and even hijacking, among other items.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about drones?

But perhaps the most significant challenge going forward is not technological – it is the need for a common set of regulations. Each country has its own set of rules for drone delivery. Globally, regulators must align these regulations and create common standards if people around the world are to reap the benefits. Governments also need to recognize that widespread use of export bans and other actions that disrupt supply chains are likely to slow recovery and weaken the world’s ability to sustain and rebuild national health systems.

There are other challenges that must be addressed to use drones to deliver medical supplies at scale. This includes restrictions on drone size, range and payload, and take-off and landing permissions, as well as security risks, such as hacking and even hijacking, among other items.

Certainly, some have questioned the economic model of drone delivery and whether it is too expensive. However, instead of cost, one should consider value: if populations are by definition underserved, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, they are likely to be even more underserved now, and drones may be the least expensive and only way to deliver care.

Society has never before had the capacity it does today to mitigate – and perhaps to a limited degree, prevent – public impacts of health crises. Prioritizing investment in innovative, life-saving technologies is timely and actionable.

If we look to the sky, we see now, more than ever, an innovative way of bringing medicines to people. Drones could save lives and help developing areas to close public healthcare gaps and address global health crises. No one company, organization or government will be able to do it alone. Governments must work collaboratively with public health organizations and the private sector to streamline policies, address security risks and share ongoing lessons to deliver critical medicines and vaccines when and where people need them most.

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