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Supply Chain 4 min read

Flying doctors: the new medical messengers saving rural lives

Flying doctors: the new medical messengers saving rural lives

Delivery by drone is about more than solving first-world problems. It's about bringing life-saving supplies to people living in remote areas.

Delivery drones are starting to take off all over the world. Possibly the most exciting new prospect in the delivery world, they’re now taking cups of hot coffee and burritos to the thirsty and hungry of Australia. But the arrival of drones in rural, sparsely populated areas and low-density suburbs is a milestone with a much deeper impact than “treats on demand.”

In cities, people have easy access to a wide variety of goods. Pizza, smoothies, toothpaste and medicine are usually just a short walk away. And in bad weather or late at night, necessities and a myriad of indulgences can be delivered by vehicle within the hour.

In rural areas, however, due to mobility challenges like sparse populations and rough terrain, drone delivery might be the only viable delivery option. Now, for the first time, same-day and instant delivery are possible, even in remote areas.

In China, drone delivery pilot programs are already underway. Logistics firm, SF Express, is trying out drones for last-mile delivery in China's most rural locations. As well as dropping off items, they’re also picking up products for sale from suppliers high in the mountains – which greatly reduces transport time to market.

However, perhaps the most important items to be delivered by drone are medical supplies.

A Zipline drone releases a package carrying blood in southern Rwanda.


Meet the drone doctors

Drones are already making an impact in the medical industry in cities around the world. In Switzerland, as a part of a pilot project, Swiss Post drones carry test results and lab samples between local area hospitals. Drones enabled the deliveries to arrive twice as fast as they would have by road. In the US, UPS has partnered with Matternet to deliver blood and tissue samples by drone in the city of Raleigh, North Carolina.

What's the advantage of drones? Blood and plasma have short shelf lives and must be transported in very specific conditions. As do vaccines, as some require refrigeration. It was found that drones can successfully deliver packages in as little as three minutes, as opposed to the thirty minutes it takes trucks to make the same journey.

Sick in the sticks?

It’s in rural areas that drones are providing the most value. Where modes of delivery like truck, motorcycle and boat aren’t possible, clinics can be left without essential medical supplies. Drone delivery is a fast, cost-effective strategy to ensure rural patients don’t need to go without.

Where is this happening? In countries like Australia, Rwanda, Tanzania, China, Ghana and Vanuatu, drones are already delivering life-saving supplies to remote hospitals far from city centers. In some areas, access to villages is only possible by banana boat, in other areas, poor weather can prevent someone from getting the necessary medicine or vaccine they desperately need. Drones can easily navigate waterways and snow-blocked roads to deliver essential supplies safely and quickly.

Now, clinics in some areas of these countries can order rabies, hepatitis and tuberculosis vaccines for children, blood for transfusions and other critical supplies, with more certainty they’ll arrive on time.

And this free-flying delivery method is evolving fast – driven by companies like Google (Wing), Amazon (Prime Air), Matternet, Zipline and Swoop Aero.

So while drone-delivered lunch within a city's limits is undoubtedly a big step toward creating the transportation and logistics industry of the future, the greatest impact of drone delivery will be felt in remote areas: by providing access to vital medical supplies, wherever you live.

Julia Johnston

Julia Johnston

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