- Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, otherwise known as drones, are helping to modernize the last mile in medical deliveries.
- A World Economic Forum initiative, Medicine from the Sky, in partnership with the State Government of Telangana and Apollo Hospitals in India, could provide a model for scaleing drone-based medical deliveries in South Asia.
- Drones could potentially allow large-scale deliveries of blood, long-tail medicines, medical samples and even organs.
The modern healthcare system represents some of the greatest achievements of the human intellect to improve the quality of people’s lives. Yet, in this modern age, many people in rural and underdeveloped quarters of the world still lack access to basic healthcare. Closing these gaps has gained a new urgency during the current pandemic, which has made clear how interconnected all of our health outcomes are.
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For decades, a waste-versus-access trade-off has pervaded the healthcare logistics sector and the developing world has been at the core of this dilemma.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are an excellent way to modernize the last mile in medical deliveries and bridge gaps in access. Drones can provide just-in-time resupplies of key medical items, regardless of location. Since some health systems can't afford to keep cold-chain products such as platelets or blood on-site, drones can ensure these supplies are available on demand.
Drones for healthcare logistics have recently seen a range of landmark moments. Last year, a University of Maryland drone delivered a kidney that was successfully transplanted into a patient suffering from a serious nephrological condition, the first ever drone delivery of a human organ.
As “rescue robotics” dominated discussions at February's African Drone Forum, last mile drone deliveries in places such as Rwanda and Ghana showed how unmanned aerial vehicles could get much-needed supplies to areas made remote by hills and slow, winding roads.
Today, Zipline drones have flown more than 1 million kilometres in Rwanda for more than 13,000 deliveries, demonstrating their humanitarian potential. Outside of Kigali, drones now carry 35% of blood supplied for transfusion. In Ghana they are beginning to deliver COVID-19 testing materials.
Drones are finding their supporters in other countries as well. India, a massive country with equally difficult geography and wide-raging healthcare disparities, has also recognized the need to incorporate drone delivery solutions.
Medicine from the Sky, an World Economic Forum initiative in partnership with the State Government of Telangana and Apollo Hospitals in India have also helped to enable and scale drone-based medical deliveries in the region.
The next phase of this initiative will transform trials and research into action in the sky. At Wings India 2020, an event organized by India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Airports Authority of India, the World Economic Forum co-organized a workshop with the State Government of Telangana to bring together all essential stakeholders to design a pilot project demonstrating the potential for drone delivery of medical supplies in India. This community is now looking at ways drones can support India’s response to COVID-19.
The project could have an immense impact on overhauling India’s cold-chain systems. With drones in place, the country’s healthcare sector could potentially witness large-scale deliveries of blood, long-tail medicines, samples and even organs throughout India and in the region. The State Government of Telangana is taking important first steps to make this a reality, including the release of an “expression of interest,” calling for potential participants who can demonstrate drone deliveries.
What is the World Economic Forum doing about drones?
The World Economic Forum is partnering with governments and companies to create flexible regulations that allow drones to be manufactured and used in various ways to help society and the economy.
Drones can do many wonderful things, but their upsides are often overshadowed by concerns about privacy, collisions and other potential dangers. To make matters worse, government regulations have not been able to keep up with the speed of technological innovation.
In 2017 the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution teamed up with the Government of Rwanda to draft the world’s first framework for governing drones at scale. Using a performance-based approach that set minimum safety requirements instead of equipment specifications, this innovative regulatory framework gave drone manufacturers the flexibility to design and test different types of drones. These drones have delivered life-saving vaccines, conducted agricultural land surveys, inspected infrastructure and had many other socially beneficial uses in Rwanda.
Today, the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is working with governments and companies in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America to co-design and pilot agile policies that bring all the social and economic benefits of drone technology while minimizing its risks.
The Indian government’s willingness to create an enabling policy environment where the use of drones can become mainstream will help ensure that most of its geographic expanse can receive adequate medical coverage. The Ministry of Civil Aviation recently created a special procedure for expediting drone flight requests for COVID-19 related applications through their online Digital Sky Platform, acknowledging the important role the technology can play in the current crisis. Initiatives in India and across Africa can be a model for other states to replicate, allowing them to create a system for medical drone procurement and to bridge key healthcare gaps.