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Supply Chain 5 min read

Flying pharmacy: why medical drones will take off in 2022

Flying pharmacy: why medical drones will take off in 2022

New advances in location technology are paving the way for drones to make vital medical deliveries in record time.

What do you do when you need medicine? For many of us who are fit and able, it's a short walk or drive to a pharmacy or doctor's surgery where we can pick up our essential supplies.

Such convenience is easy to take for granted. If you're elderly or infirm — or live in a remote community — the nearest access to medicinal care could be hundreds of miles away, with a poor or even non-existent delivery network.

One device that could address these critical last-mile problems in the medical supply chain is drones.

The global market for medical drones was valued at US$88.2 million in 2018, but that's now on track to grow 24.7% by 2025, with the coronavirus pandemic fueling the demand for unmanned air vehicles.

Zipline, a logistics company that has pivoted into medical drone delivery, has flown 18 million autonomous miles in three countries to deliver millions of vaccines, units of blood and medications to thousands of healthcare facilities. These have then been distributed to 25 million people.

Each drone can fly a 160km round trip in all weather conditions at any time of day or night to make on-demand deliveries in just 30 minutes.

“Instant logistics can transform health outcomes for those that need it most," said Keller Rinaudo, Founder and CEO at Zipline.

One of Zipline's clients is Cardinal Health. Its Senior Vice President of Pharmaceutical Operations, Josh Dolan, added: “Our customers value access to the right medication and medical supplies ordered at the right time for their patient care needs — and that begins with an effective distribution strategy."

Thousands of remote communities in Africa were supplied with the COVID-19 vaccine via drone. Image credit: Zipline.

Pioneering vaccine delivery

In Rwanda, Zipline drones have been delivering blood to 350 health facilities across the country, helping to reduce wastage by 95% and tripling throughput. Zipline's drones were also used to great effect in Ghana to deliver the first long-range drone delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.

More than 220,000 doses have been delivered to date, pioneering a new model for vaccine distribution in an area where there are many logistical challenges, made more complicated because the vast majority of vaccines require storage at low temperatures.

On the success of the pilot Rinaudo said: “Delivery to people in remote and hard-to-reach places is a primary challenge for global vaccination. In partnership with Pfizer and BioNTech, we have created a solution to address this potential pain point head-on. Together, we are working to help transform vaccine distribution into a more effective, equitable process."

Zipline isn't the only company operating at the forefront of medical drone delivery.

Drone Delivery Canada has been using drones to deliver essential supplies to cut-off outposts and saw a huge spike in demand during COVID-19. The company's CEO, Michael Zara, told HERE360: “It's really an industry that's just starting. Certainly, COVID-19 has raised the profile. When it's over, some companies are going to look at drone logistics as a backup business continuity system."

In remote regions, delivery by drone can supply cut-off communities with medical supplies in minutes. Image credit: Zipline.

Cleared for takeoff

Drones have many benefits for businesses and consumers. As well as speed and convenience, they are cheaper to operate. According to Deutsche Bank, drone delivery costs only US$0.05 per mile compared to US$2 per mile with USPS or US$6.50 per mile from a ground carrier. But their use has been largely curtailed due to safety and security concerns.

One issue of using autonomous drones in built-up environments is collisions with buildings, infrastructure and people, but location technology can pave the way for automated drones to work harmoniously and in sync with humanity.

Using its 3D mapping technology and location dataHERE recently partnered with FlyNex, a drone flight planning startup, to map German airspace in 3D for autonomous drones. Using HERE's highly-accurate 3D object and location data in the lower airspace, the solution allows drones to navigate safely through densely populated areas.

“As the drone use case nicely shows, as soon as something moves, it needs location intelligence to do so efficiently and safely," said Mark Yao, Director Product Management for 3D at HERE. “With FlyNex, we are expanding to the skies the location expertise we have acquired on the road."

Another application that can help prevent drone collisions is geofencing. HERE Geofencing can control and restrict how, when and where drones fly, such as avoiding restricted airspace or flying over residential areas at night, creating in effect highway lanes in the sky where autonomous drones can safely fly.

Ian Dickson

Ian Dickson


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