Chinenye Anuforo, [email protected]
A drone, in technological terms, is an unmanned aircraft. Drones are formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems (UASes).
In the recent past, UAVs were most often associated with the military, where they were used initially for anti-aircraft target practice, intelligence gathering and then, more controversially, as weapons platforms. Drones are now also used in a wide range of civilian roles, ranging from search-and-rescue, surveillance, traffic monitoring as well as videography, agriculture and even delivery services.
Recently, drones have emerged as a medical tool that could help mitigate logistical problems and make healthcare distribution more accessible. And the medical aspect of drone delivery is gaining traction.
Just as the mobile phone allowed developing countries to leapfrog technology in personal communication, the delivery drone has the potential to have the same effect on traditional transportation infrastructure. Inaccessible roads no longer will prevent delivery of blood, medications or other healthcare items.
The modern healthcare system represents some of the greatest achievements of the human intellect to improve the quality of people’s lives. Yet, in this modern age, many people in rural and underdeveloped quarters of the world still lack access to basic healthcare. Closing these gaps has gained more urgency during the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking to journalists in Ghana, during a tour of Zipline Ghana Limited, Mr. Daniel Marfo, the senior vice-president of Zipline, explained that using drones was an excellent way to modernise the last mile in medical deliveries and bridge gaps in access.
Drones can provide just-in-time resupplies of key medical items, regardless of location. Since some health systems cannot afford to keep cold chain products such as blood on-site, drones can ensure these supplies are available on demand.
Drones for healthcare logistics have recently seen a range of landmark moments.
As “rescue robotics” dominated discussions at February’s African Drone Forum, last-mile drone deliveries in places such as Rwanda and Ghana showed how UAVs could get much-needed supplies to areas made remote by hills and slow, winding roads.
Today, Zipline drones have flown more than 1 million kilometres in Rwanda for more than 13,000 deliveries, demonstrating their humanitarian potential. In Ghana, they are beginning to deliver COVID-19 testing materials.
Marfo told journalists that Zipline would begin delivery of medical services to health facilities in rural communities in Kaduna State, Nigeria, by September. He disclosed that Zipline was also in talks with other states in Nigeria and some Africa countries for effective drone delivery system of medical equipment to health facilities to rural communities.
He noted that Zipline was duly registered with the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority and Ministry of Health, and maintains a high degree of safety.
Marfo said that the initiative was part of the state government’s vision of using drone delivery to establish universal access to lifesaving and critical medicines for most of its more than eight million citizens over the coming years.
He said the revolutionary new service would use drones to make on-demand deliveries of hundreds of different vaccines, blood products and life-saving medications.
“The new solution is to increase access and reduce medical waste, key stock of blood products, vaccines and lifesaving medications. All these will be stored at Zipline’s distribution centres for just-in-time delivery.
“Health workers will place orders by text message or call, and promptly receive their deliveries in 30 minutes on average.
“The drones both take off from and land at Zipline’s distribution centres, requiring no additional infrastructure or manpower at the clinics they serve.
“The drones fly autonomously and can carry 1.8kg of cargo, cruising at 110km an hour, and have a round trip range of 160km, even in high speed winds and rain,’’ he said.
Marfo added that Zipline would operate 24 hours daily, seven days a week, from three distribution centres with each equipped with 30 drones and deliver to more than one thousand health facilities, serving millions of people across the state.
According to Marfo, the company also planned to invest in local content development by employing and training people from the state to work with the company. All the three distribution centres would be capable of micro targeting the delivery of more than six tons of medical products each week over more than 60,000sq kilometres.
“Our work together will help transform the quality of care for millions and help make Nigeria a world leader in using technology to expand universal healthcare access,” he said.
The Zipline boss said the company’s end-to-end cold chain distribution capability, which can safely deliver even the Pfizer vaccine, would allow Kaduna health facilities to bypass purchases of ultra-low freezers and enable on-demand deliveries of precise amounts of COVID-19 vaccines.
“We believe we have a shared vision and a unique opportunity to partner to ensure universal access to healthcare and reduce the vulnerability of at-risk communities. Based on our assessment, we believe we can work together to realize just-in-time delivery of emergency product, provide timely stock-gap resupplies and respond to disasters.
“Timely cold chain delivery service for facilities with unreliable power supply or no cold chain infrastructure.
“Provide an economically viable distribution system for hard to reach and underserved communities. A reliable delivery service of rare, hard to store, sporadically used, or otherwise challenging medical products.
Personalized care is the new frontier of healthcare, providing patients a point of care right when and where they need it. Technology has opened the door to new possibilities – being able to connect with a doctor through your phone and now, receiving delivery of your medications at your doorstep via drone. This partnership could lead the way in defining what instant decentralized service delivery will look like globally.”
Zipline’s on-demand service ensures products are readily available at health facilities.
The increased availability equips healthcare providers to deliver care effectively. It also promotes patient trust in the healthcare system which influences healthcare utilization.
Improved service levels and utilization positively affect patient health outcomes. It increases the health system’s responsiveness to preventable deaths that would have been exacerbated due to low service utilization and limited product availability.
Marfo said Zipline also offers services to nations across Africa, with limited cold-chain storage and poor road and rail networks, are grappling with how to deliver COVID-19 vaccines that require ultra-low temperature storage.
He added that the Pfizer vaccine must be stored at around -70 degrees Celsius (-112°F) before being sent to distribution centres in specially designed cool boxes filled with dry ice.
According to him, the threat of COVID-19 has prompted many countries to draft new and emerging technologies to fight the pandemic, with the latest example taking flight in Ghana.
Marfo said: “Deliveries were made by U.S. firm Zipline, which started couriering blood and drugs in Rwanda in 2016.
“Since then, the company has expanded its operations to Ghana in 2019 and the U.S. in 2020, delivering medical supplies and PPE in North Carolina last May.
“Now, Ghana’s government has tapped Zipline to deliver the first vaccines supplied to Africa by the COVAX initiative, a project launched with the help of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ensure that developing countries have access to COVID-19 vaccines.