For healthcare professionals, the use of drones has huge benefits, in particular the ability to reach areas that lack proper infrastructure to deliver lifesaving drugs and other necessities.
In Africa, medical deliveries by drone are already underway. US-based start-up Matternet has partnered with the government of Malawi and with UNICEF to deliver infant H.I.V. tests within the country, and in Rwanda, another start-up, Zipline, is delivering blood and pharmaceuticals to remote locations in hours rather than weeks or months. According to Zipline, its system’s speed makes it possible to maintain a “cold chain.” When the drones reach hospitals, they will not land but drop small packages from very low altitudes. The supplies will fall by simple paper parachutes. The drones will then return to a home base, where they will be prepared for a new mission by swapping in a new battery and snapping in a new flight plan stored in a SIM card.
In Europe, DHL is utilizing drones to deliver drugs and other urgent supplies to a remote island in the North Sea. The island, Juist, is only accessible by a once-daily ferry service and regular passenger flights. According to a press statement from a DHL Parcel spokesperson in 2014, deliveries are secured and all types of drugs can be carried except those dependent on refrigeration units that may be too heavy for the “parcelcopter” to carry.
Additionally, Matternet announced a permanent autonomous drone network in Switzerland that will have lab samples, such as blood tests and other diagnostics, flown between hospital facilities, clinics and labs. According to the company, medical items can be delivered to hospitals within 30 minutes.
The US has been a bit slower than other countries to embrace drone deliveries. Despite some ongoing tests for general deliveries by the likes of UPS and Amazon, there are few drone deliveries of medicines. However, there are some examples, including the 2015 partnership between NASA and Flirtey to deliver medicines and other medical supplies to an annual free clinic in Virginia. The entire operation took about two hours as Flirtey separated the medical supplies into 24 small packages, which were then transported by the drone. The pharmaceuticals were lowered to the ground via tether and healthcare professionals at the scene received them.
Flirtey is also partnering with REMSA Health, a provider of ambulance and emergency health services in Nevada. Flirtey and REMSA plan to dispatch a drone to deliver a portable defibrillator whenever a 911 caller in the area reports symptoms of cardiac arrest.
Is drone delivery viable? According to market research companies, the estimated market size of the commercial drone market is expected to reach over $2bn by 2023. The market faces numerous challenges, most importantly how to share air space with larger airplanes as well as privacy and security concerns. However, its benefits in delivering life-saving pharmaceuticals to remote areas cannot be denied and perhaps this is “secret sauce” within supply chains.
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