Medicines from the sky: how drones can save lives

drones covid

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Craig Kennedy, Senior Vice President, Global Supply Chain Management, Merck Sharp & Dohme


  • From COVID-19 to cholera, health crises expose unequal access to care.
  • With the right regulations and technology in place, drones could be used to deliver medicines when and where people need them most, providing a new approach for healthcare delivery during disasters and disruption.

Much of the world’s population lives without regular access to essential healthcare services. Nearly half (44%) of all people on the planet live in rural areas., with only a third living within two kilometres of an all-season road. People living in these communities face devastating health challenges, with poor infrastructure and failing ground transport networks often resulting in a lack of supplies and care – and that’s on an average day.

 

But what happens when disaster strikes and infrastructure collapses completely? Consider the current COVID-19 pandemic, which highlights the breakdown of supply chains in securing PPE, as well as the many disasters that have come before it: Hurricane Maria, which battered Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in 2017; the earthquake and resulting tsunami in Indonesia in 2018; or Cyclone Idai, which caused severe flooding in four countries in Africa in 2019 and gave way to a massive cholera outbreak. The past few years have witnessed two of the deadliest Ebola outbreaks in history, which crippled the healthcare system and society at large in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Medical treatment and obtaining the right supplies in these circumstances quickly changes from difficult to impossible — just look at the major gaps communities across the globe today face in securing PPE. But we can and have overcome tough supply chain challenges before. One example is in the fight against Ebola, where stakeholders have come together and leveraged data across communities on outbreak intensity to create informed response strategies, ensuring that medicines and vaccines are deployed to areas where they are most needed. It’s not perfect but having a global network – and the ability to shift supply from one country to another – is essential and goes far to combat disease.

Still, what’s clear is that the traditional approaches for connecting and supplying people with care and medicines are not just antiquated, they are increasingly inadequate. This is where we have a new possible solution – namely, drones – to address this challenge and bring medicines to patients faster, when they need them the most.

A solution is in the sky

Drones are an emerging solution which makes particular sense in a disaster setting. Unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, have the potential to enable faster, safer delivery of critical medicines and vaccines and bypass impacted infrastructure on the ground. Organizations are working together across a variety of collaborative projects to experiment and advance drone technology.

My company has also been participating in this work and our latest test flight achieved an important milestone: last year, together with several partners, and following previous tests to Puerto Rico post Hurricane Maria, we successfully flew a drone to the Bahamas over open water beyond the operator’s line of sight. Today, it is fairly typical to maintain a temperature range of between 2-8 degrees Celsius within the payload of a drone. However, on this flight, the cold-chain delivery technology onboard allowed for precise temperature control at minus 70 degrees Celsius, the temperature required for storing and transporting some life-saving vaccines. This success proves the feasibility of using drones in the future to deliver vaccines and temperature-dependent medicines to remote locations – a practical advance that has major implications.

Others are investigating how to use drones to close gaps in healthcare access. At a panel discussion on this topic at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, Deputy Executive Director Charlotte Petri Gornitzka discussed how UNICEF has used drones to transport blood samples across Malawi, Kazakhstan and Sierra Leone. She also recounted the first successful delivery of a vaccine by drone to Vanuatu, a small country in the South Pacific.

Meanwhile, the first broad Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval for drone delivery was granted in the US, and in Rwanda, drones are being regularly deployed to transport blood and medicines to hospitals in remote regions.

Global reported natural disasters by type
Global reported natural disasters by type
Image: Our World in Data

Seizing the benefits on a global scale

Drones are poised to positively affect humanitarian efforts. However, we need to be working now to ensure we can use them for more regular operations around the world. The G20 governments’ recent call for collective action on COVID-19, including cooperation with the private sector, increases the need for stepping up support for emerging and developing countries facing the health, economic, and social shocks of the virus.

But such innovation does not come without challenges.

There are technical challenges that must be addressed to achieve drone delivery of medical supplies at scale. This includes restrictions on drone size, range and payload, and take-off and landing permissions, as well as security risks, such as hacking and even hijacking, among other items.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about drones?

The World Economic Forum is partnering with governments and companies to create flexible regulations that allow drones to be manufactured and used in various ways to help society and the economy.

Drones can do many wonderful things, but their upsides are often overshadowed by concerns about privacy, collisions and other potential dangers. To make matters worse, government regulations have not been able to keep up with the speed of technological innovation.

In 2017 the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution teamed up with the Government of Rwanda to draft the world’s first framework for governing drones at scale. Using a performance-based approach that set minimum safety requirements instead of equipment specifications, this innovative regulatory framework gave drone manufacturers the flexibility to design and test different types of drones. These drones have delivered life-saving vaccines, conducted agricultural land surveys, inspected infrastructure and had many other socially beneficial uses in Rwanda.

Today, the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is working with governments and companies in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America to co-design and pilot agile policies that bring all the social and economic benefits of drone technology while minimizing its risks.

Read more here, and contact us if you’re interested in getting involved with the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s pioneering work in the governance of emerging technologies.

But perhaps the most significant challenge going forward is not technological – it is the need for a common set of regulations. Each country has its own set of rules for drone delivery. Globally, regulators must align these regulations and create common standards if people around the world are to reap the benefits. Governments also need to recognize that widespread use of export bans and other actions that disrupt supply chains are likely to slow recovery and weaken the world’s ability to sustain and rebuild national health systems.

There are other challenges that must be addressed to use drones to deliver medical supplies at scale. This includes restrictions on drone size, range and payload, and take-off and landing permissions, as well as security risks, such as hacking and even hijacking, among other items.

Certainly, some have questioned the economic model of drone delivery and whether it is too expensive. However, instead of cost, one should consider value: if populations are by definition underserved, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, they are likely to be even more underserved now, and drones may be the least expensive and only way to deliver care.

Society has never before had the capacity it does today to mitigate – and perhaps to a limited degree, prevent – public impacts of health crises. Prioritizing investment in innovative, life-saving technologies is timely and actionable.

If we look to the sky, we see now, more than ever, an innovative way of bringing medicines to people. Drones could save lives and help developing areas to close public healthcare gaps and address global health crises. No one company, organization or government will be able to do it alone. Governments must work collaboratively with public health organizations and the private sector to streamline policies, address security risks and share ongoing lessons to deliver critical medicines and vaccines when and where people need them most.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

The Japanese have a word to help them be less wasteful – ‘mottainai’

Commission adopts €70 million package for early access to EU COVID-19 vaccines in the Western Balkans

Who holds the key to the future of biotechnology? You do

UN rights chief bemoans unilateral sanctions on Venezuela, fearing ‘far-reaching implications’

Aid used for trade is helping developing countries diversify

OECD leading multilateral efforts to address tax challenges from digitalisation of the economy

UN rights expert calls for end to ‘purgatory’ of ‘international inaction’ facing Myanmar’s remaining Rohingya

Trump wants to implicate China in US attacks against global order

Is “Sustainable Development” a concept that integrates Health Literacy and Health Policy as a global health action?

With science ‘held back by a gender gap’, Guterres calls for more empowerment for women and girls

Human Rights Council election: 5 things you need to know about it

EU budget: Boosting cooperation between tax and customs authorities for a safer and more prosperous EU

Eurozone plans return to growth

Climate change update: consistent global actions urgently needed as we are running out of time

Fair completion rules and the law of gravity don’t apply to banks

Eurozone very close to a sustainable growth path

FROM THE FIELD: For refugees and migrants in Europe, healthcare’s essential but a challenge to find

Coronavirus: Commission receives first preliminary application for support from the EU Solidarity Fund for health emergency from Italy

On Human Rights Day European Youth Forum calls for end to discrimination of young people

With Gaza violence ‘escalating as we speak,’ UN envoy calls for ‘immediate stop’

Suffering of thousands of war-affected Syrian children ‘unprecedented and unacceptable’

#TwitterisblockedinTurkey and so is Erdogan

Ukraine: €8 million in humanitarian aid to withstand winter

‘Agile’, multilateral response vital to combat terrorism – UN chief Guterres

5 facts you might not know about why forest biodiversity matters

Recovery and Resilience Facility: Belgium, Italy, Austria, and Slovenia submit official recovery and resilience plans

Australia wants to build a giant underground ‘battery’ to help power the nation

Commission proposes to top up support for refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey

Four things workers want implemented by their bosses post-pandemic

Industrial price dive may lead to point of no return

5 creative alternatives to plastic packaging

FROM THE FIELD: Malawi farmers diversify to fight climate change

The JADE Spring Meeting is about to begin

Boris to end up in jail if he loses the next elections?

6 ways to ensure AI and new tech works for – not against – humanity

Pushing for tax fairness in a digital world

‘Global clarion call’ for youth to shape efforts to forge peace in the most dangerous combat zones

Global health challenges require global medical students

Safer products: EP and Council close deal to beef up checks and inspections

Nagasaki is ‘a global inspiration’ for peace, UN chief says marking 73rd anniversary of atomic bombing

Investing in nature gives industry and business a competitive advantage. Here’s why

CLIMATE CHANGE FOCUS: Climate-proofing Timor-Leste

UNICEF warns of ‘lost generation’ of Rohingya youth, one year after Myanmar exodus

Here’s how we get businesses to harmonize on climate change

EU allocates over €43 million in humanitarian aid to South Sudan

The 5 lessons from New York Climate Week to help us combat deforestation

UN rights office calls on Zimbabwe Government to end ‘crackdown’ in response to fuel protests

1 in 13 young British people have PTSD. Here’s why

The blackened white coat of the doctors

The clothes of the future could be made from pineapples and bananas

COVID-19: Team Europe supports African, Caribbean and Pacific countries to access finance through digital technology

Christine Lagarde: the three priorities for the global economy

“Asia-Pacific takes stock of ambitious development targets”, written by the Heads of UNFPA and ESCAP

Healthcare guidance apps to professional’s continued education?

End fossil fuel subsidies, and stop using taxpayers’ money to destroy the world: Guterres

Youth not prioritised in new Commission

State aid: Commission approves €286 million Finnish measure to recapitalise Finnair

A bad marriage can be as unhealthy as smoking and drinking

Coronavirus Global Response: Commission joins the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX)

Eurozone’s sovereign debt not a problem anymore?

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s