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Jul 7, 2023   |   Blog Post

Flying with Innovation – The Case for Drones at SAPICS 2023

SAPICS conference panel, “Moving from ‘use cases’ to a robust business case for drones,” featuring panelist Olivier Defawe.

By Olivier Defawe

Director & Drones for Health Solution Lead

To get health products to people when and where they need them, sometimes we need to think outside of the box.

It might be better to even say we need to fly outside the box through innovation, particularly through the use of drones. Integrating drones into public health supply chains is an approach VillageReach uses to transform health care delivery in Africa.

But questions remain: How can we make drone logistics more cost-effective and affordable? Could drones shift supply chain economics, design and business models?

These are some of the questions we posed through a panel at the most recent SAPICS conference, where health and health care delivery was prioritized.  This year’s conference, held in Cape Town, South Africa, from June 11 – 14, was the first to feature a public health supply chain track, offering development agencies, donor organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) the chance to discuss strategies to reach Agenda 2030 and universal health coverage with private sector supply chain partners.

Drones Disrupt How We Think About Transport

I had a chance to discuss strategies to transform healthcare delivery and make a case for drones in health during the panel, “Moving from ‘use cases’ to a robust business case for drones.”

Drones were once thought to be the technology of the future with unclear potential impact on supply chain systems. But now we see disrupting the way we think about warehouse location and level skipping, re-supply frequency, end to end data visibility and much more.

Drones are even disrupting the way we think about health care delivery. At VillageReach, we’ve been using drones over the past decade to improve how lifesaving health products can reach the last mile. Through our Drones for Health solution, we have tested, deployed and scaled drone logistics based on the principle of “fit for purpose mode of transportation,” which means drones do not necessarily replace pre-existing methods of transport but rather supplement them.

Today, VillageReach and a handful of other players have contributed to generating evidence of the benefits of drone logistics on supply chain performance and the health system overall through the UAV for Payload Delivery Working Group (UPDWG). Most recently, VillageReach, IDinsight and INSEAD in partnership with Swoop Aero, have recently finished the baseline of the first randomized control trial (RCT) on how drones impact health outcomes in Malawi.

Through the implementation of seven drone transport networks across five different countries, we have a good understanding of the “know-how” to introduce drone logistics into an existing supply chain and the actual cost of operating sustainably and scaling a drone transport network.

Addressing Challenges with a Mindset Shift

However, cost-effectiveness and demand remain issues that we need to address in order to enhance and scaling up drone transport in Africa.

While there is a demand for drone technology, the market is fragmented, as the drone industry is still being developed in silos across sectors. This is not optimal for developing a transport solution that supports the number of products needed to be transported.

We need to aggregate this demand and develop business models and pricing structures that allow the affordability and sustainability of this transformative solution.

Additionally, a mindset shift is needed to address the high starting price of this still relatively new technology. We need to think of drones not as a solution to all problems but instead think about how we can optimize their utilization and aggregate the demand across sectors with prices that can compete with other modes of transportation.

A Hopeful Future

Now that evidence of the benefits of drone logistics is becoming more readily available and that we understand better the actual cost of operating at scale a drone transport network, I am hopeful that industry leaders across all sectors will take the time to explore where and how drone logistics could create a new revenue stream within their existing business, or contribute to market expansion of an existing business or even create a new business.

In the public health sector, drones can potentially address the equity gap in health care access that we witnessed during the pandemic worldwide. By identifying local health needs and engaging with communities to better understand the contextual use of drones, we can ensure that no matter where people live, they can access lifesaving products needed to thrive.

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