• Drones provide a potential avenue for ensuring that everyone, no matter where they live, has access to high quality healthcare.
  • The challenge is to move from pilot projects to larger scale operations that are financially sustainable.
  • Africa offers lessons: the technology is ready, but the regulation and the sharing of data needs to catch up.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made visible to the global community many of the health inequities that have long been present. As we move through this crisis, it has become clear that the previous ways of doing things are no longer adequate. This has led to innovation, such as the historic success of creating new vaccines in record time. Now attention is turning to how we can ensure equitable access to these types of essential health materials.

Drones provide a potential avenue for ensuring that everyone, no matter where they live, has access to high quality healthcare. Africa has been a global leader in the field of drones with the first national scale drone delivery programme launching in Rwanda in 2016 and the world’s first drone delivery of a COVID Vaccine taking place in Ghana during March of this year. African countries are showing the rest of the world the social and economic value that can be provided by this technology.

Despite these successes, there remain many unanswered questions about how to design a successful drone programme, where the technology can be best applied, and how to measure the results. The World Economic Forum has partnered with Deloitte to develop a report that offers a framework for evaluating these issues that are essential for taking full advantage of this technological revolution. The paper focuses on the African context, but many of the lessons are universally applicable.

1. Making the economics of drone delivery work

Some of the biggest challenges identified are around the need to evaluate the opportunity provided by drones at larger scale. Small pilot projects were a good way to learn initially, but we must move through the “valley of death” between pilots and large deployments where the economics of drone delivery can make sense.

The question is no longer whether the technology is ready, but how to find sustainable business models for drone-enabled healthcare provision.

This is intimately connected to creating the right policy environment and ecosystem for drones in Africa and beyond. The needs of the current time are too urgent for us not to aggressively pursue how we can shape emerging technologies to meet the needs of all people no matter where they live.

2. Routine to emergency infrastructure

A key lesson from the African experience is that drones can best be used as emergency infrastructure when they are already serving as routine infrastructure. In 2020, Zipline delivered over 1 million doses of non-COVID vaccines, stepping up its delivery cadence significantly in response to limitations in healthcare access caused by pandemic restrictions.

Ghana then turned to Zipline in March 2021 to begin distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to rural and ex-urban healthcare facilities. Within 3 days, Zipline had distributed its entire initial allocation of 11,000 doses of vaccine, representing 13% of Ghana’s total vaccines administered in that period.

3. Sharing the data around drone use

There also needs to be more open sharing of data around drone use. Right now there is little publicly available information about the economics of drone delivery or how health outcomes are impacted. While there are many understandable reasons why organizations are hesitant to provide quantitative information about their systems ranging from national data sovereignty concerns from governments to competitive concerns by companies without this data it is hard for government officials or healthcare officials to evaluate the claims of potential service providers.

Deloitte and the World Economic Forum developed a model for looking at the economics of delivery, but much more nuanced information is needed. The public and private sector should work together to plan what data will be collected when a programme is started and what information they will commit to releasing.

4. Scaling up and spreading out

We are beginning to see the spread of these activities around the world and lessons from scaled up operations in Africa being applied elsewhere. In India, the Forum has worked with states including Telangana as well as the central government on its Medicine From the Sky project. India is incubating its own ecosystem of companies and policies and expects to launch trials of drone delivered vaccines in the next few months.

Japan is experimenting with new business models as Zipline’s strategic operational partnership with Toyota Tsusho Corporation in Japan will provide a look at scaled up third-party implementation models. Israel recently conducted one of the largest trials of concurrent drone flights under an unmanned traffic systems with the aim of creating a nationwide drone delivery network that will include medical goods. The United States has also started drone delivery of medical supplies with UPS flying drones at the WakeMed campus in Raleigh, N.C. All of these operations will need to find sustainable financial models in order to deliver on their full potential.

5. Sharing the airspace

The biggest barrier to creating these types of operations around the world remains regulation of the airspace. Civil aviation authorities (CAAs) face a tough challenge in balancing the safety of existing flight operations and people on the ground while enabling new types of operations. However, in addition to traditional measurement of risk, consideration also needs to be given to the risk of not enabling lifesaving delivery operations and how many people’s health will be improved by on demand access to vaccine, blood products, and other medical supplies. CAAs are making progress in creating an enabling environment, but more needs to be done to allow for scaled up operations. Performance based regulations provide a way forward.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased interest in using drones for medical supply chains. Although no single technology can be a silver bullet, we need to pursue all avenues that improve equity of access to life saving goods whether in Africa, rural America, or poor urban communities. We should not wait until the next crisis that will surely come to accelerate efforts to put this new form of health infrastructure in place. By learning the lessons that Africa has to teach the world, the public and private sector can put in place business models, regulation, and smart supply chain integration that will improve access to healthcare for all.