Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are an emerging technology that hold a lot of promise to improve access to health care for the most underserved populations in hard-to-reach areas. Additionally, it can provide time savings in critical situations in busy urban areas with heavy traffic congestion. Despite becoming commonplace in recreational settings, and being utilized in various sectors, drones are still a nascent technology when it comes to transporting medical products. With every flight test, VillageReach continues to uncover new insights that prove invaluable to pave the way towards drone introduction and integration into health systems. VillageReach is aware of the complexity and technical expertise required to test drones and the findings gleaned from similar projects in other countries are critical to ensure readiness in deploying the technology as a viable supply chain solution.
In Mozambique, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), VillageReach is testing the use of drones for health in partnership with the government and various drone companies. These short-term tests aim to prove the feasibility of drones for specific use cases, including how their performance and costs stack up against the status quo. Each of the projects are gathering much-needed evidence on the performance, safety, costs and benefits, community acceptability and operational variables to inform governments’ decisions for integrating drones into their health transportation systems.
In both Mozambique and DRC, the governments and VillageReach are on the cusp of testing this innovation, while in Malawi there have been several drone projects dating back to 2016. Drone flight tests were conducted in Lilongwe in March, 2019 and an exchange visit allowed a delegation from each country to share insights and best practices from their projects to date. The delegation from Mozambique included Susana Moreira, VillageReach drones program manager and Diosdélio Ernesto Tomé de Gwegwen, biosafety manager from the National Tuberculosis Reference Laboratory of the Instituto Nacional de Saúde (INS), Mozambique’s National Public Health Institute.
Susana Moreira highlights the key learnings from the visit:
“My initial objectives were to observe the operational activities associated with the flights, and thus be able to better plan for the Mozambique study, but the learnings went beyond that. The meeting with NextWing, the drone company working with VillageReach in Malawi, provided an opportunity to discuss practical issues such as ideal flight conditions, specific characteristics of the cargo (in Malawi blood and injectable oxytocin, in Mozambique sputum samples for tuberculosis (TB) testing, and in DRC vaccines), and challenges encountered by drone operators during their stay in Malawi. The trip also improved our understanding of the data that could be collected, which helped us to adapt our protocol and intervention in Mozambique. The various government meetings also highlighted the importance of working hand-in-hand with the Civil Aviation Authority and the Malawi Ministry of Health and Population, who embrace the idea of using drones for health and have provided unwavering support despite set-backs.”
For INS, the objective was to learn how to deliver samples using drones while identifying necessary procedures, biosafety and biosecurity precautions as well as the resources required for effective operations.
The trip to Malawi was especially useful for Diosdélio Ernesto Tomé de Gwegwen, the INS representative. He explained: “The interaction with my Malawian counterparts helped me to better understand how lab officials comply with international standards and safety requirements when using drones to transport potentially hazardous substances“.
“The trip to Malawi helped to improve our understanding about the logistics of drone testing information which we will apply to all aspects of our test flights in Mozambique, from selecting a drone partner to how many people should be available each day to ensure the flights run smoothly,” added Susana.
In addition to the practical knowledge, it was also a good opportunity for the delegations to witness how Malawi has embraced UAVs as a way to address transportation challenges at the last mile of healthcare delivery. Malawi was the first country in Africa to establish a drone testing corridor, with different drone companies having tested or planning to test their drones there over the next months.
Funded by UKAid, the Mozambique drone project is testing the feasibility of transporting TB sputum samples in collaboration with INS. Flights and lab tests of TB samples are planned for the last quarter of 2019. This will mark the first time that drones are tested for the transport of biological material in Mozambique.
VillageReach and partners developed the UAV for Payload Delivery Working Group (UPDWG) for informal knowledge and resource-sharing for those involved in the development, advancement, and application of cargo drones for public health and supply chain improvement. You can request to join the working group by clicking here.