Drones Delivering Healthcare

Cartography, aerial photography, delivering humanitarian supplies—professional drone applications are constantly developing. In remote villages in Africa, as well as in the crowded streets of Western cities, drones are now saving lives by transporting equipment, medicines, and delivering medical samples.

Air deliveries since 2016

The drone is a flexible and fast means of transport with low emissions, and one that is proving to be of great use in countries where poor infrastructure and roads prevent people in rural areas from accessing healthcare. The first deliveries of blood and medicine were made in Rwanda in 2016 by an American startup, Zipline. More than 13,000 deliveries of blood bags were reportedly made before deliveries extended to vaccines and other medicines.

Building on these early successes, the company signed a four-year cooperation agreement with the government of Ghana in December 2018. It concerns setting up centres for medicine distribution by drones, as part of an ambitious program announced by Ghana’s President, to modernise Ghana’s hospitals and clinics. The first drone centre opened in Omenako, 43 miles (70 km) from Accra, last spring.  There are now four such centres, representing some 600 deliveries per day. Within a half-hour on average, the drones are capable of flying to 500 rural clinics, providing healthcare to 12 million people, which is nearly half of Ghana’s population (30 million inhabitants).

« Drone transport will improve speed of deliveries at a lower cost, enhance access to care and create healthier communities. »

Donald Gintzig, CEO of WakeMed


Faster and cheaper

Meanwhile, shipping company UPS, in partnership with Matternet, a US-based manufacturer of autonomous drones, launched the first commercial transport service delivering biological samples by drone in the United States last March, for the Raleigh medical centre (North Carolina) and its Wakemed network.  These drones have four propellers and can carry secured containers weighing up to 5 pounds (about 2.5 kg) over a distance of 12.5 miles (just over 20 km). The service, supervised by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the North Carolina Department of Transportation, supplements the current system of courier delivery by car. The objective is to save valuable time by avoiding traffic jams.

At ATR, which has been involved for many years in a partnership with Aviation Sans Frontières delivering medicines in Africa and transporting young patients in particular, we can only welcome the development of drone services for health and humanitarian applications.  Against this backdrop of new air mobility, the issues of flight authorisations, internal security and low-altitude air traffic management remain to be resolved—a major obstacle to the development of such solutions in many countries.