Newsroom & Blog

Jul 27, 2016   |   Blog Post

Big Questions: Understanding UAVs at the Last Mile

By Olivier Defawe

Senior Manager, Health Systems

IMG_0721Often when we talk about methods of delivery in low-resource environments, we are referring to simple solutions. Health commodities arrive at rural clinics on trucks, by bicycle or motorbike, by foot, and sometimes even by boat or canoe. These traditional delivery methods are often faced with simple, but insurmountable barriers. Roads are washed out or are in poor repair. Vehicles are not properly maintained or require expensive fuels. Routes pass through potentially dangerous areas with threatening wildlife. Trying to find new, innovative solutions for these problems has lead VillageReach to UAVs – unmanned aerial vehicles. Last week, I presented at the first meeting of the Final Mile Logistics Working Group, providing an overview of UAVs and the potential they have for filling the delivery gap in global development.

UAVs, better known as drones, have been used for many years for military and humanitarian purposes. In recent years, the popularity of civilian drones has skyrocketed, and civilian drones now outnumber their military cousins. Along with gaining ground in popular culture, more organizations are interested in how UAVs can play a role in low-resource environments. In global health, many of the potential new use cases require drones to carry more than a camera. Vaccines, blood products, and lab samples are only a few of the potential health commodities for which drones will need increased carrying capacity. And they need to carry these commodities while traveling further. Innovators are working to make this possible: combining and refining technologies that propel UAVs greater distances with limited battery capacities while increasing the size and weight of the cargo they are able to carry.

As these new technologies become reality, it’s important that we understand the bigger picture and whether investment in UAVs makes sense for donors and governments.

VillageReach is one of a handful of organizations trying to understand some of the most fundamental questions related to UAV use in global health, such as:

  • Can UAVs actually transport health commodities and lab samples?
  • What is the cost of UAVs as a transport solution?
  • How do UAVs integrate with other aspects of the transport network?
  • How do we engage rural communities around the use of UAVs?

Using our experience in Malawi, VillageReach is beginning to explore this technology. Before UAVs become a part of health systems anywhere in the world, we must understand and anticipate some incredibly complex questions. Gatherings like the Final Mile Logistics Working Group provide an incredible opportunity to engage with other organizations, the private sector, and interested individuals about this topic. We are all invested in making sure our use of UAVs is appropriate, effective, data-driven and cost efficient. There are still a lot of unknowns that require research using both modeling and field testing – generating evidence to inform the use of UAVs in global health. Sharing this evidence and hearing new viewpoints allows us to further develop our approach to UAVs and begin to answer some of these big questions.


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