Innovative solutions such as drones will ensure that even the most remote communities receive the vaccines, medicines and lab sample services they need to thrive.
KINSHASA, JANUARY 29, 2021 – Today, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) officially launched its routine drone delivery operations to reach remote communities in the Équateur province. Through the “Drones for Health” Program, drones ensure fast turnaround transport of lifesaving vaccines, medicines, and other health products as well as laboratory samples and test results to reduce the burden of infectious diseases and prevent their spread. As the need for a rapid transportation service arises with the COVID-19 pandemic, the integration of drone technology as an additional modality into the health system comes at a critical time.
“The integration of drones into DRC’s health supply chain is a significant step toward equitable access to health care for the country,” said The Honorable Minister of Health of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dr. Eteni Longondo. “The commencement of these flights means thousands of children will have increased access to immunization services. It also means that there is an additional mechanism in place for the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine distribution.”
Led by the DRC Ministry of Health, with flight approvals from the Civil Aviation Authority, alongside partners VillageReach and Swoop Aero, the drone network, currently composed of a fleet of drones covering 22,000 km2, will deliver health products routinely and on-demand for 70 hard-to-reach health facilities (25 of which are drone landing sites), serving over half a million people. The drone program will also help to monitor vaccine-preventable diseases such as polio, measles, yellow fever, HIV, and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, and potentially COVID-19.
The drones, operated by a fully local team trained by Australian drone-powered logistics company, Swoop Aero, have vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability, and can fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) at speeds of up to 115 km per hour, significantly reducing the time it takes to reach distant or difficult-to-access areas. Swoop Aero has developed and implemented drones safely and reliably in five countries, including DRC.
Since late December 2020, the Drones for Health Program has conducted over 164 flights (82 round-trips) transporting 32 kg of immunization products and personal protective equipment (PPE) for 14 health facilities via 7 drone sites and returning with lab samples and reports. Two months of life-saving vaccines were delivered allowing more than 620 children to be vaccinated. To date, Swoop Aero trained a local team of 4 drone operators and 2 pilots, and 16 health facility staff. The provincial health department and VillageReach conducted additional trainings at 25 health facilities.
Delivering health products in Équateur province, a large region in northwestern DRC mostly blanketed by dense rain forest, has been a longtime challenge. The region relies heavily on the Congo River and adjacent waterways for transportation, making the ground journey from the provincial capital Mbandaka to remote communities long and difficult. Most of these communities do not have access to mobile phones or internet, rendering communications between the provincial and district health authorities and the health facilities very difficult. The drones will become a means of rapid communication in addition to a traditional means of transport, to ensure health facilities have appropriate stock of immunization products on a consistent basis, and no children go unvaccinated.
“It is a privilege to be a part of such a historic program, being the first province in DRC to use drones to address transportation challenges in our province”, said the Governor of Equateur, Bobo Boloko Bolumbu. “Much needed health products such as vaccines, masks, and lab samples will now be delivered to remote parts of the province, benefiting our communities that have also mobilized local resources in support of the program in various ways such as building floating landing areas for the drone.”
VillageReach has been working with the national and provincial government on an initiative that was launched in 2017 known as Next Generation Supply Chain (in French, it is known as Nouvelle Génération des Chaînes d’ Approvisionnement, or NGCA) to create a more efficient, effective supply chain. Integrating regular drone operations into NGCA and in Equateur continues years of work with strengthening supply chains in a large country like DRC.
The province has been making investments in its supply chain in the last several years, focusing on key areas of the National Health Development Plan. Phase 1 planning of drone integration took place in 2019 and concluded with successful demonstration flights in August 2019.
“As we have seen with COVID-19, health care challenges continue to change and require responsive and flexible networks. Because investments into the health system were started at the right time by the Minister of Health,” said Freddy Nkosi, VillageReach DRC Country Director, “the supply chain system is in a mature position to have innovative solutions, such as drones, operationalized. And with the pandemic this will be incredibly important.”
In spite of the coronavirus pandemic and worldwide logistical challenge of getting the fleet of drones from Australia to DRC, Phase 2 began in early 2020 culminating into routine operations that are commemorated today, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Patrick J. McGovern Foundation; Crown Family Philanthropies; and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
In 2019, Swoop Aero, a world leader in aeromedical logistics, was selected through a competitive global tender to conduct medical drone deliveries in DRC. Swoop Aero’s drone technology is versatile and can be used in low-resource and challenging environments and allows for quick transfer of operations to local workforce, including the capability to 3-D print parts when needed for in-country maintenance.
“On-demand air logistics strengthen supply chains and enable a more equitable coverage of vaccines and health products. We are proud that our drone technology platform is helping the DRC Ministry of Health achieve this goal,” says Eric Peck, CEO of Swoop Aero, “and we are just getting started.”
To learn more about VillageReach’s Drones for Health program across sub-Saharan Africa, click here.
VillageReach transforms health care delivery to reach everyone, so that each person has the health care needed to thrive. We develop solutions that improve equity and access to primary health care. This includes making sure products are available when and where they are needed and primary health care services are delivered to the most under-reached. Radical collaboration with governments, the private sector and other partners strengthen our ability to scale and sustain these solutions. Our work increases access to quality health care for 46 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.
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About Swoop Aero
Swoop Aero is the Australian drone-powered health logistics company dedicated to developing and implementing sustainable, reliable and scalable networks that underpin responsive and accessible healthcare. The end-to-end, on-demand solution moves sky and Earth to ensure a constant flow of provisions for patient care—anywhere on the planet. Swoop Aero has built the world’s leading complete technology platform for drone logistics. Designed as a single system, the Swoop platform provides frictionless native integration across the entire value chain to make access to the air seamless; Swoop Aero provide the complete infrastructure for drone logistics. Find out more: www.swoop.aero
About Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance
Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance is a public-private partnership that helps vaccinate half the world’s children against some of the world’s deadliest diseases. Since its inception in 2000, Gavi has helped to immunise a whole generation – over 822 million children – and prevented more than 14 million deaths, helping to halve child mortality in 73 developing countries. Gavi also plays a key role in improving global health security by supporting health systems as well as funding global stockpiles for Ebola, cholera, meningitis and yellow fever vaccines. After two decades of progress, Gavi is now focused on protecting the next generation and reaching the unvaccinated children still being left behind, employing innovative finance and the latest technology – from drones to biometrics – to save millions more lives, prevent outbreaks before they can spread and help countries on the road to self-sufficiency. Learn more at www.gavi.org and connect with us on Facebook and Twitter.
Patrick J. McGovern Foundation
The Patrick J. McGovern Foundation is committed to bridging the frontiers of artificial intelligence, data science, and social impact. The Foundation invests in activities that lead to greater inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility in how Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data are conceptualized, developed, applied, and deployed. Given the increasing influence of Technology, AI, and data to our daily lives and society. the Foundation aims to create a shared understanding, language, and vision for how these tools can be ethically developed and applied for the greater good. At scale, AI and data can be instrumental in solving the world’s most pressing challenges.