Thoughts from the Last Mile Welcome to the VillageReach Blog
03.31 2019

Innovation According to Plan: Using Drones to Deliver Health Products to the Last Mile

I’ve been fortunate to work with pioneering government leaders across sub-Saharan Africa, people who are leading their countries to identify and introduce solutions for pressing health challenges. There are many reasons that some new ideas take off while others fizzle.  But when it comes to reaching remote populations, Malawi didn’t let complexity get in the way.  Instead, the government chose to figure out some of the practical details.  

The Malawi’s Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) and the Department of Civil Aviation with support from other partners did something unique.  They opened a first-of-its kind drone-testing corridor to explore drone technology and promote research on the use of drones for humanitarian purposes, including health.  The corridor, opened in Kasungu district in June 2017 allows for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) testing in a territory over 5000 km².

NextWing and VillageReach teams working together at the Humanitarian Drone testing corridor in Kasungu. Photo by Lindi van Niekerk

After successful tests inside the Kasungu drone corridor, the Ministry of Health and Population, VillageReach, and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) manufacturer NextWing were hoping to advance the use of UAVs as a way to increase access to essential health products –starting with blood and oxytocin – by testing flights to a health center and a district hospital.  Malawi’s shortage of vehicles, cold chain limitations, traffic, and other challenges in getting these products to people who need them quickly can mean the difference between life and death.

NextWing drone. Photo by Lindi van Niekerk

Testing an unproven technology inevitably means failure, but resilience is how we push beyond failure. An opportunity to demonstrate this resilience came earlier this month.  Due to global positioning system (GPS) jamming, the drone pilots decided to make a precautionary landing to preserve enough energy to land safely.  The mission team was always in control and the fail-safe mechanisms functioned exactly as planned. Most importantly, no injuries or damage on the ground occurred and oxytocin, the first commodity flown, was safely preserved. The team was able to track the drone the entire time and pinpoint where it had landed – in a non-populated area. While this particular test flight did not end according to plan, the mission was successful in helping to identify changes needed to improve flight stability.

All partners agreed that the expertise and professionalism of the team contributed to the best possible outcome given the unexpected circumstances.   As with any partnership, mutual trust and collaboration is key. Dr. Charles Mwansambo, Chief of Health Services in the MoHP, supports the continuation of the study upon successful resolution of the GPS interference.

Malawi Blood Transfusion Services representative checking the oxytocin transport container prior to a flight. Photo by Lindi van Niekerk

Applying the learning from this most recent flight, NextWing will be looking at how to improve both software and hardware to address GPS interference. VillageReach, Nextwing and other partners will continue feasibility studies in the Kasungu corridor. The next phase of research will also test blood quality of transport samples.  Additionally, the Department of Civil Aviation, VillageReach, UNICEF and other key stakeholders are developing a toolkit and checklist, based on lessons learned, for UAV implementers and operators to use when preparing in-country flights and to find ways to mitigate challenges they may encounter from the onset.

As partners, we are forging new ground, proving that innovation will take time. Each flight is a new opportunity to learn and improve.  By taking these first steps, however, the Malawi MoHP is a leading contributor in the global effort to better understand the most effective use of drones for health in the last mile context.   I would like to thank the all of our partners who contribute to this collective learning but particularly to the Malawi Ministry of Health and Population, which understands that innovation is a process. With each flight, we get one step closer to a more patient-centric health system where quality healthcare is accessible to all.

Dr. Olivier Defawe is a Director, Health Systems at VillageReach managing the organization’s drones for health program and UAV for Payload Delivery Working Group (UPDWG), the cross-sectoral collaboration on drones.

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Malawi healthcare worker