Since 2014, SIAPS, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MOH) in the Dominican Republic (DR), has been developing the design of a supply chain for HIV and tuberculosis (TB) laboratory samples that offers national coverage, including rural areas. Recently, the MOH approached SIAPS seeking technical advice on the feasibility of implementing and using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, as a means of transportation for these laboratory samples.
Since the use of UAVs for distribution is a nascent technology that has not yet been widely implemented, SIAPS conducted an investigation on potential solutions and opportunities offered by this technology. A literature review focused on global health applications was conducted, and the team learned about the work of a start-up called Vayu, which seeks to combine easy-to-use smartphone technologies with the capabilities of UAVs to deliver products to hard-to-reach areas with limited infrastructures.
Vayu’s CEO, Daniel Pepper, provided background information on the company, as well as detailed specifications for the current capabilities and limitations of its UAVs, including estimated acquisition and maintenance costs. Mr. Pepper shared the company’s experiences with testing exercises and upcoming pilot implementation projects, as well as different applications of UAV technology for improving access to health commodities and services.
The battery-powered UAV takes off and lands vertically, controlled by a smartphone application using GPS. A fiducial marker (essentially, a 2-D barcode made from a squared piece of fabric) is used as a landing aid. The UAV can carry a payload of 2.2 kg in its 9-liter cargo bay, and can travel up to 60 km at a cruise speed of 60 km/hour on a single battery charge. A drone may be programmed to make multiple stops on one charge, or to stop mid-way in a longer flight for recharging if the present 30-km range radius proves insufficient for the planned application. Its range may also be extended by using a hybrid distribution method, relying on a van for a fraction of the total distance, and then using the drone only for the poorly connected section of the route.
In terms of cost requirements, a fleet of UAVs represents a large initial investment, though prices in the future can be expected to decrease given strong demand. This initial investment, though large, can be offset by lower operational and maintenance costs when compared to other modes of transport, such as a fleet of trucks. The drones are low maintenance, and the most common maintenance cost will come from replacing the battery after its lifetime of 1000 recharging cycles. A smartphone or tablet with access to the internet is required control the UAV, though high-speed internet is not required as the amount of data transmitted is very small. Moreover, training is neither costly nor time-consuming, being based on a self-explanatory application that runs on a smartphone or tablet, therefore relying on the information and feedback offered by a touchscreen.
In addition to the transport of laboratory samples in remote areas, a range of other applications and opportunities for UAV technology exist, from the emergency delivery of vital supplies within a congested city, to delivery of pharmaceuticals to those patients with chronic illnesses (arthritis, heart failure, AIDS, hypertension) living in remote areas and who do not require frequent visits to health facilities, to picking up samples at lower levels of the supply chain to extend pharmacovigilance.
The potential opportunities offered by this cutting-edge technology are truly exciting. However, in contemplating the potential application of UAVs for global health, SIAPS must continue to integrate these technological advances with the supporting processes to ensure cost-effective and sustainable implementation within the constraints of human and financial resources available for health systems strengthening.
Click here to learn more about the design of the supply chain for HIV and TB laboratory samples in the DR.
To learn more about SIAPS work in the DR, click here.