An Australian company is one of two companies that will partake in a world first, trialing drone delivery of life-saving vaccines to children in remote island communities in Vanuatu.
The Vanuatu Government has awarded drone company Swoop Aero with commercial contracts covering vaccine delivery to health facilities on three of the archipelago’s small isolated islands that are within a 150 kilometre radius of the main island of Efate.
Only a third of Vanuatu’s 83 Pacific islands are inhabited islands have airfields and established roads, creating challenges to reach, engage with and support remote communities.
The first phase of the drone trials will take place next week, when Swoop Aero and Wingcopter test the viability of delivering vaccines to inaccessible areas.
Currently, healthcare workers walk eight to 10 hours between villages with vaccines in a backpack, but are unsure of how much vaccination is needed or how many people need treating. As such, the drones will aim to make about two deliveries a day, flying up to 100 kilometres in distance and carrying about 2.5 kilograms of vaccine supplies.
Swoop Aero Co-founder and CEO Eric Peck told HITNA that control of the drones will happen from the largest villages of each island, with potential to be controlled from anywhere globally using an iPad.
The Swoop Aero drones are created from commercial off-the-shelf components, as well as company proprietary technology. They feature a carbon-fibre frame and come encased in a 3D-printed shell that is lighter but as sturdy as fibreglass.
Peck said the mobility-as-a-service company was founded in November last year, alongside its Co-Founder and CTO Josh Tepper, to use drones to help people.
“This project lets health workers within a village to send us an SMS stating what they need, following which we’ll work with healthcare workers at the hubs to onboard the required vaccines onto the drones using a carrier. It then gets launched and reaches the health worker in under an hour in most cases.”
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According to Peck, both Tepper and himself wanted to reach the high-value, high-priority goods market and run a business that would have a genuine impact on people with needs.
“We saw this opportunity in healthcare, then worked on what an operating model for transporting vaccines everyday will look like and how to deliver that as a reliable service,” he said.
Peck said drones are a tool for effective delivery of healthcare services, particularly in remote and rural parts of the world that are inaccessible by roads. It enables healthcare providers, regardless if they are an NGO or private health provider, to offer services to people.
“We want everyone to have that basic access to healthcare,” he said.
“The vaccination rate at vanuatu, two years ago, was at 80 per cent and a 98 per cent vaccination coverage rate is needed to stop the spread of communicable diseases. So the country is looking at new and emerging technologies to reach that coverage.”
During the first phase of the trials, drones will take off from an airstrip on the main island, in North Efate. Flying over its closer offshore islands of Emao, Pele and Nguna, the drones will drop a package at a cordoned-off area of a local football field.
The second phase of the trial will be more far reaching, transporting vaccines to health facilities on the three islands of Epi, the Shepherd Islands and Erromango Island. This is expected to commence in early January 2019.
“The trials are to see if we can deliver these vaccines in a cost-effective and reliable way. Following the trials, the technology and capability will be assessed to see if it works for a larger island group along the country,” Peck said.
“Our fleet size can be expanded, if needed, and our drones can be produced in a little less than three days using 3D printers.”
This initiative is led by Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health and Ministry of Infrastructure and Public Utilities through the Civil Aviation Authority of Vanuatu. Technical support and financing are provided by UNICEF and the Australian Government’s InnovationXchange Accelerator Fund.
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Vanuatu Ministry of Health Director General George Taleo said ensuring vital supplies at health facilities are consistently available is an ongoing challenge for Vanuatu due to geography, logistics and high costs.
“An important step for dealing with some of these challenges to providing healthcare to vulnerable communities is looking at innovative ways such as the use of drones,” Taleo said.
According to UNICEF Pacific Representative Sheldon Yett, the challenges of reaching children in the remote islands of Vanuatu are immense, with nurses often needing to walk several hours to deliver vaccines to health clinics in these communities.
“Every child in the world has the right to life saving vaccines and this technology is a step towards reaching those children most at risk.”
The drone trials also aim to engage health care workers from the facilities on the selected islands, as well as teachers, children and government officials to share knowledge and expertise. If successful, Peck said they could potentially also be used to deliver other medical supplies or be used to collect pathology samples which can be flown back to a central testing lab.
Moving forward, Peck said Swoop Aero will pursue a number of leads in the South East Asian region, focusing on countries like Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, before moving on to other countries in similar situations.
“This trial in Vanuatu offers Swoop Aero an opportunity unlike other to deliver on this sort of service and acquire the knowledge prior to actually deploying it. Not many companies in the world have such an opportunity and we will be using that knowledge to widen the access to healthcare globally,” he added.