UAVaid Integrates Delivery Drone Into Malawi Healthcare Supply Chain

Daniel Ronen
Oct 24 · 6 min read

This last August 2019, the UAVAid Hansard V drone was deployed to Malawi for a programme of tests in the remote area of Kasungu. One key project saw the system successfully integrated into the local medical supply chain and delivering medicines to a remote health outpost.

The success of this programme demonstrated the viability and broadening of use-cases able to benefit from UAV delivered healthcare logistics over long distances, with significant implications for the development sector in remote and difficult to reach areas.

This delivery project was part of programme which successfully tested the multi-functionality and ‘in-the-field’ reconfiguration of the Hansard UAV, with tasking for large-area mapping and live video surveillance (anti-poaching). This article relates primarily to the integration of the UAV into the healthcare system and the medical delivery. [The anti poaching and mapping will be covered in separate post, as will the multi-functionality outlined at the bottom of the page].

Notes:

  1. This was UAVAid’s second deployment to Malawi. You can read more about the earlier pilot here and the UAV work of the Frontier Technology Livestreaming (FTL) programme here.
  2. Local facilitation and coordination was provided by UNICEF Malawi, and we would like to express our gratitude for their work in helping to make this project such a success. One of the key lessons from this deployment was the value in local facilitation with stakeholder engagement.
The Hansard UAV releasing the cargo for delivery

What was achieved (cargo delivery):

  • Integration of the UAV delivery service into the medical supply chain in remote Malawi.
  • UAV delivery of 5kg of medical supplies (Malaria tablets, IV fluids + ORS) to remote health clinic.
  • Proven long range: BVR/BVLOS flight operations.
  • Logistics ‘pull’ instead of ‘push’- items delivered based on true demand, not a forecast!
  • First ever parachute-drop delivery in Malawi.
The UAVaid flight operations team with a Hansard UAV, at the Kasungu Drone Testing Corridor

Lessons Learnt

The project demonstrated the maturity and usability of the technology as well as its ability to be integrated into existing public healthcare services and systems. This ability to be incorporated into existing services will be crucial to the successful scaling up of the technology into contexts where medical deliveries are difficult or unreliable. Some of the key lessons from this programme are outlined below;

Engagement is Key

Central to the success of this project was effective engagement with the key stakeholders. This was achieved both ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’. Much of the preparation for this stakeholder engagement was done in advance by UNICEF Malawi, which paved the way for securing the necessary permissions and approvals. What became very clear was that the greater the level of ‘buy in’ from the stakeholders, the more flexibility was afforded to accommodate unforeseen circumstances, such as power cuts or bad weather.

At the governmental level, having already secured permission to conduct parachute deliveries from the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), UNICEF Malawi arranged the necessary meeting(s) with the healthcare authorities. This took place at the Kasungu District Hospital. Outlined in the meeting was the overall structure of the intended delivery project, how it would streamline the supply chain, who would be the beneficiary, timescale etc. Approvals were granted and we had a partner!

Engagement at the other (receiving) end of the supply chain involved travelling to the Lifupa health outpost to meet with Elizabeth, the resident health worker in this remote clinic. The journey took several hours by 4X4 vehicle, mostly on dirt roads (unreliable in the rainy season). During the discussions, she explained the difficulties she had in accessing the necessary medical supplies, and the causes for these difficulties. This included unreliable transportation, the number of links in the supply chain with items passing ‘from one hand to the other’, information flow, variable demand and availability of the right items at the Health Centre where she makes her collections. Importantly for a ‘live’ project, she listed the medicines she needed. This list became the demand ‘pull’ (which logistics experts will recognise as a superior trigger to ‘push’ where response times and circumstances allow). Delivery drop zone GPS coordinates and contact details were confirmed.
This local stakeholder engagement was a critical success factor.

Elizabeth of the Lifupa Health Outpost, and Daniel Ronen of UAVaid, discussing the challenges in accessing medical supplies and how the UAV delivery project will be implemented.

So what happened?

With the district health leadership having given its approval, the listed medicines were collected from the main stores in Kasungu District Hospital and taken to the aerodrome for loading onto the UAV.

  1. Malaria tablets (2 dose sizes)
  2. IV fluids
  3. ORS (Oral Rehydration Salts)
James Ronen loading the delivery canister into the Hansard aircraft.

In advance of the delivery flight, the operations team conducted a practise flight to Lifupa, a linear distance of approx 35km from the Kasungu drone base, to ensure all was in order. This flight tested the multi-layered communications capability of the Hansard, providing persistent 3C (command, communications and control) at BVLOS ranges.
For the live delivery, Elizabeth confirmed the clinic was ready and the aircraft, loaded with the package, took off. After just 1/2hr flight it overflew the target drop area, released the package and returned to Kasungu. The 5kg canister of medicines gently fell to earth, slowed by the parachute, and was collected by the local clinic staff. Safe retrieval was confirmed.

For this initial delivery, a member of the UAVaid team travelled to the Lifupa clinic to verify drop zone safety, supervise the area and take photos etc.

The results of the delivery can be seen for themselves:-

Elizabeth (in blue) with a colleague and the 5kg UAV-delivered-package of Malaria tablets, IV fluid and ORS.

The evidence from this delivery fligth, and the others within the programme in Malawi indicates that the range of use-cases suitable for benefiting from UAV’s can be widened. This evidence should help shape the development space and support decision making for scale-up in this sector.

What About The Kitchen Sink?

From our experiences, there have been some gadgets that have proven invaluable and others we have added to our deployment kit list. wished we had with us. It has been clear from UAVaid’s international deployments to remote areas there are some gadgets that can make a real difference.

  1. Anemometer - portable wind speed meters can be used to measure the wind direction and speed at the runway itself. Useful for helping to make informed decisions about flight safety and document flight conditions envelope.
  2. GPS - We all have GPS apps on our phones but there are times when the reliability of a dedicated professional unit is just required. Not expensive but guarantees results which a phone may not. Use for accurate location and altitude information.
  3. Compass - Although convenient, mobile phones are not reliable for use as a compass. We experienced phone compass drift in Malawi where it gave false readings despite doing a ‘re-calibration’ figure of 8 ‘wiggle’. Take a dedicated unit.
  4. USB - It may seem obvious but no matter where you are these days there will be numerous devices needing power. USB multi-chargers (eg charging 6 devices at once) and power packs will be invaluable.
  5. Portable 4G / wi-fi hotspot - invaluable to support group working without having to navigate multiple sim cards and accounts. Ensure you take a high quality unit with you. Locally available units may be of low quality and run out of power mid way through the day (even if plugged in), as we have experienced ourselves. Make sure your unit is unlocked in advance so that you can install a local sim card as soon as you are able to get one at the airport.

Anything else…?

The project successfully tested the multi-functionality and dual-use of the Hansard UAV, with the following combination(s) of uses all proving to be viable and usable in a development context:

  1. Cargo delivery
  2. Cargo delivery + Aerial surveillance
  3. Mapping
  4. Mapping + Aerial Surveillance
  5. Aerial Surveillance at extended range.

* All flights were operated will full independence on local infrastructure for ‘3C’ (command, control, communicaitons), ie no need for cell network. This reinforced the useability of the system in remote and difficult to reach areas.

Please note:The coordination of UAVAid’s activities in Malawi has been facilitated by UNICEF Malawi. We wish to express our gratitude for the assistance provided.

Frontier Technologies Hub

Daniel Ronen

Written by

Co-founder of UAVAid Ltd. a UK based developer of multi-purpose drones for humanitarian and development applications.

Frontier Technologies Hub

Working with the UK Dept. for International Development to apply frontier technologies to the biggest challenges in development.

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