Drones have been successfully tested for delivering emergency medical supplies to remote areas of Puerto Rico still feeling the effects of last year’s devastating Hurricane Maria.

The proof-of-concept trial deployed temperature-controlled cargo containers for transporting vaccines, as well as non-refrigerated cargo such as asthma and hypertension medicines.

Although the Hurricane Maria death toll is estimated by the Puerto Rican Government at almost 3000, the vast majority of these deaths were not caused directly by the storm, but by subsequent disruptions to vital infrastructure and services, such as access to healthcare and treatment for chronic diseases.

Andrew Schroeder, director of research and analysis at humanitarian aid organisation Direct Relief said the hurricane had spurred innovation in disaster relief and healthcare resiliency.

“In emergency response, we need to quickly get medicine to remote locations that may be otherwise reachable only by helicopter,” he said. 

“As drone technology and systems for managing them improve, we expect them to save lives in places where disasters have cut off access to critically needed healthcare.”

The trials are a collaboration between Direct Relief, Merck (which is funding the project and providing the medicines for delivery), Softbox (which has provided small temperature controlled packaging systems for transporting cold chain medications) AT&T (whose IoT technology is monitoring the temperature and location of the cargo) and Volans-i (which is providing and operating the drones).

The trials involved drones flying over both land and sea, beyond line of sight, in challenging terrain, delivering medicines to remote mountain villages that were cut off from electricity and road access for months after Hurricane Maria, some of them for a time accessible only by helicopter.

Softbox technical director Richard Wood said SKYPOD, the IoT-enabled, temperature-controlled packaging was designed specifically for drone applications in extreme conditons.

“SKYPOD can be tracked in near real-time … providing real-time data for temperature, GPS location and security, ensuring the protection of the medicines through the most challenging of final-mile scenarios,” he said.

This week tests were conducted with drones flying in challenging terrain in remote areas impacted during Maria, beyond the line of sight. The drone deliveries extend to remote mountain villages that were cut off from electricity and road access for months after Hurricane Maria, some of them for a time accessible only by helicopter.

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