MAPPING OUT THE FUTURE: Pharma.Aero UAV PROJECT explores the potential of scaling up the use of lifesaving drones in remote communities 

In remote areas of Africa, it often takes three days to deliver medicines (by canoe) or to pick up a blood sample and take it to the lab. A drone can do it in less than an hour. In many places in Africa, it takes 4 hours to deliver Oxytocin in an emergency, when the life of a mother giving birth is at risk. A drone can save her life in under 20 minutes. 

The lifesaving drones have become a common sight in remote areas of Africa, where people have little if any access to the health care they need and deserve. From the first drone flight on the continent, in 2016, to the world’s first drone delivery of a COVID vaccine with strict cold chain requirements, in Ghana, Africa has proven to be a global leader in the field of drones.

What is the next step in pharma transportation by drone? Is it possible, feasible and safe to scale up drone delivery and make it more affordable and sustainable for use in the public health sectors of low- and middle-income countries? How can we better integrate drones into the supply chains?

Pharma.Aero has taken the lead in exploring all these aspects through the UAV Project that is now in its final phase of mapping the real-life journey of transporting vaccines (cold chain requirements) from the factory, in Europe, to the patient, in a remote village in Malawi, Africa.

Pharma.Aero partnered with VillageReach, Swoop Aero, and UPS Healthcare to explore and identify the key strengths and weaknesses of transporting health products by drone.

Dr. Olivier Defawe is the project manager of Pharma.Aero UAV Project and brings along his longtime experience with VillageReach, a not-for-profit organization that has been working for the last 20 years, together with national governments, to improve people’s access to health care and health products (vaccines, medicines, lab samples).

“We want to explore the drone’s potential of transforming the local, the regional, and even the global supply chain to improve equitable access to health products and health care that people around the world deserve. You need to think out of the box to improve equitable access to health products. Over the past 6 years, we have conducted 5 different projects to generate evidence that it is possible, with the right technology, the right enabling environment, and the right partners, to fly drones safely and reliably in Africa.”

“We are not trying to replace the motorcycle or the truck. We are not trying to serve every single health facility. The drone is an additional mode of transportation that is complementary to other land-based traditional means of transport. In Malawi, we use drones for on-demand transports, or for emergencies, including seasonal destruction of the infrastructure.”

Drones are the only option for delivering medicines or vaccines when roads become impracticable, every rainy season. This year, for example, a health facility in Southern Malawi had all access roads damaged for almost 5 months. The facility has been unable to even send an ambulance for emergencies, including maternity cases, from December to the end of May.

Throughout this period, the facility was heavily reliant on drone operations for emergency supplies (Oxytocin, antibiotics, lab samples, vaccines).

This year, the drones operating in Malawi marked another important milestone, by delivering Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines that require ultra-cold supply chain conditions. It was a first in Malawi, one of the poorest and underserved countries on the planet.

This success opened the door for imagining progress in multiple directions. Could the drones be further integrated and cover earlier segments of the supply chain? Is there an opportunity to seemingly connect traditional airfreight with drone logistics for a more efficient, agile and resilient end to end supply chain?

The UAV Project is exploring this direction and will provide the traditional airfreight logistics industry with key enablers to connecting the classical business model to UAVs in Malawi and beyond.

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