More than half of the world population lacked access to essential health services even before the COVID-19 pandemic. People living in rural communities often have to travel far to the nearest medical center. The importance of preventative health care is essential and can eliminate the many consequential diseases that can occur. Some barriers to providing health care include a shortage of healthcare staff and difficulty getting into rural and forested areas.
A solution to this problem that has been trialed in several countries is medical delivery drones. A drone is an unmanned ariel vehicle that can fly over long distances. Medical drones have the potential to be an optimal method to connect patients, laboratories, and hospitals in remote communities.
Currently, medical drone deliveries have been occurring in third-world countries where the lack of access to healthcare is highest. In 2019, the Malawian government set up a network across the country of East Africa to serve 20 million people. The drones were used to deliver childhood vaccines for malaria, TB, and rotavirus, as well as pharmaceuticals. In May 2021, the Malawi Ministry of Health signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Swoop Aero, an Australian drone logistics company, and Village Reach, a non-profit organization to scale the drone technology platform across the country to advance humanitarian-related and development activities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of drones became even more resourceful. COVID-19 vaccines and test kits were added to the drone network. Aside from pandemics, natural disasters can make it difficult for healthcare workers to travel to these flooded sites to deliver medication. In areas prone to extreme weather events such as floods and earthquakes, medical drones can have an extremely beneficial use to deliver care when the time is critical. Medical drones have been used to deliver polio vaccines, and critical supplies and used to provide immediate ariel monitoring post-disaster.
Another layer to medical drones is the potential to reduce waste. In the South Pacific, logistics companies can also keep track of vaccines distributed at each site. This data was then used to identify products close to expiring and delivered to another site for use. In Rwanda, the use of drones instead of ambulances resulted in faster blood arrival for transfusion by 79 minutes and reduced wasted blood units by two-thirds.
While there has been a slower uptake of drones in the US, the future of medical drones is promising. The Federal Aviation Administration conducted initiated a new program called BEYOND to tackle the remaining challenges of drone integration. The use of medical delivery drones in the United States can provide several advantages such as increased access to healthcare in remote communities, mitigation of severe weather conditions and traffic, and reduction of medication waste. Some US startups to look out for and are already in place providing medical delivery services are Matter Net, Flirtey, Zipline, and Wing.