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How drones could change the future of healthcare delivery

India has looked at the success of medical drones in countries like Rwanda - Image: Gavi/2019/Tony Noel

India Lead, Drones and Tomorrow’s Airspace, World Economic Forum
  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, otherwise known as drones, are helping to modernize the last mile in medical deliveries.
  • A World Economic Forum initiative, Medicine from the Sky, in partnership with the State Government of Telangana and Apollo Hospitals in India, could provide a model for scaleing drone-based medical deliveries in South Asia.
  • Drones could potentially allow large-scale deliveries of blood, long-tail medicines, medical samples and even organs.

The modern healthcare system represents some of the greatest achievements of the human intellect to improve the quality of people’s lives. Yet, in this modern age, many people in rural and underdeveloped quarters of the world still lack access to basic healthcare. Closing these gaps has gained a new urgency during the current pandemic, which has made clear how interconnected all of our health outcomes are.

For decades, a waste-versus-access trade-off has pervaded the healthcare logistics sector and the developing world has been at the core of this dilemma.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are an excellent way to modernize the last mile in medical deliveries and bridge gaps in access. Drones can provide just-in-time resupplies of key medical items, regardless of location. Since some health systems can’t afford to keep cold-chain products such as platelets or blood on-site, drones can ensure these supplies are available on demand.

Drones for healthcare logistics have recently seen a range of landmark moments. Last year, a University of Maryland drone delivered a kidney that was successfully transplanted into a patient suffering from a serious nephrological condition, the first ever drone delivery of a human organ.

As “rescue robotics” dominated discussions at February’s African Drone Forum, last mile drone deliveries in places such as Rwanda and Ghana showed how unmanned aerial vehicles could get much-needed supplies to areas made remote by hills and slow, winding roads.

Today, Zipline drones have flown more than 1 million kilometres in Rwanda for more than 13,000 deliveries, demonstrating their humanitarian potential. Outside of Kigali, drones now carry 35% of blood supplied for transfusion. In Ghana they are beginning to deliver COVID-19 testing materials.

Drones are finding their supporters in other countries as well. India, a massive country with equally difficult geography and wide-raging healthcare disparities, has also recognized the need to incorporate drone delivery solutions.

 

Medicine from the Sky, an World Economic Forum initiative in partnership with the State Government of Telangana and Apollo Hospitals in India have also helped to enable and scale drone-based medical deliveries in the region.

Many people in the world lack access to basic healthcare
Many people in the world lack access to basic healthcare
Image: Our World in Data

 

The next phase of this initiative will transform trials and research into action in the sky. At Wings India 2020, an event organized by India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Airports Authority of India, the World Economic Forum co-organized a workshop with the State Government of Telangana to bring together all essential stakeholders to design a pilot project demonstrating the potential for drone delivery of medical supplies in India. This community is now looking at ways drones can support India’s response to COVID-19.

The size of the medical drones market was valued at $88.2m in 2018 and is expected to witness 24.7% CAGR from 2019 to 2025
The size of the medical drones market was valued at $88.2m in 2018 and is expected to witness 24.7% CAGR from 2019 to 2025
Image: Global Market Insights

 

The project could have an immense impact on overhauling India’s cold-chain systems. With drones in place, the country’s healthcare sector could potentially witness large-scale deliveries of blood, long-tail medicines, samples and even organs throughout India and in the region. The State Government of Telangana is taking important first steps to make this a reality, including the release of an “expression of interest,” calling for potential participants who can demonstrate drone deliveries.

The Indian government’s willingness to create an enabling policy environment where the use of drones can become mainstream will help ensure that most of its geographic expanse can receive adequate medical coverage. The Ministry of Civil Aviation recently created a special procedure for expediting drone flight requests for COVID-19 related applications through their online Digital Sky Platform, acknowledging the important role the technology can play in the current crisis. Initiatives in India and across Africa can be a model for other states to replicate, allowing them to create a system for medical drone procurement and to bridge key healthcare gaps.

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