The Vanuatu government has signed with a commercial drone business to deliver temperature sensitive vaccines to more than 30 remote villages which takes health workers days to access by boat.
UNICEF has been key in establishing the trial program and point to drone technology as having “massive potential” in the South Pacific archipelago and the region. If successful, the program could be expanded globally.
With 83 islands spread over 500 square miles, just a third of the nation is accessible by air and road. The remoteness makes delivery of health care services challenging, logistically.
Vaccines were selected as the first medication for drone delivery as they are ‘delicate,’ expensive and hard to transport safely.
Andrew Parker, director of UNICEF’s field office, said, ”The trials are exciting but come with risks involving frightening the locals, losing the drones over the sea or in the mountains, as well as flying reliably in tropical storms or high winds.”
Over the past five years, vaccine coverage has increased from 75% to 85%. The drones are expected to boost that to 95%.
“To go from 85% to 95% with the existing options is not feasible,” said Parker. “The government would have to toss in a huge amount of money to reach the extra 10%. That’s where drones come in.”
There’s a lot UNICEF doesn know yet. That the reason for the trial runs. Among the questions to be answered: Will they fly reliably? Will they land where they’re supposed to land and will children with homemade slingshots knock them out of the sky.
To help answer the question about man made “anti-aircraft slingshots,” the government has spent significant time socializing residents about them drone. The goal is to raise the people’s comfort level around having drones land in their villages.
The drones will be expected to deliver vaccines twice a day and have a range of 100 miles and can carry roughly five pounds of supplies.
At first, the drones will be controlled from the largest villages on each island. As the program comes together, they will be controlled from anywhere on the planet by using an iPad.
“The service will permit a health worker in a village to text UNICEF and then the response will be to send the correct number of vaccines directly to the village in under an hour,” said Arkady Bukh.
Vanuatu’s government chose Australian company Swoop Aero for the three-month pilot to begin in December 2018. The first phase will occur between December 3 and December 7 and focus on delivering supplies to one specific village.
During the second phase which begins in January 2019, the drones will deliver supplies to health facilities on three islands.
If the trial is successful, future plans include using drones to deliver other medical supplies such as blood or pathology samples can be retrieved and flown back to a lab for testing.
Drone technology has been used in Rwanda to deliver blood to remote villages resulting in shorter delivery times. The times have been slashed form more than four hours to under a half hour.
The service in Rwanda is a joint effort between the African nation’s government and a Silicon valley robotics company. The program is called “Uber for Blood” and expansions into Tanzania is expected in 2019.
Vanuatu’s innovative program could open the door for other nations with remote locations to provide needed health care.