No roads for medical distribution? There’s a drone for that

Moving medical supplies or tests in Africa from point A to point B is difficult. Regions often struggle from creaking infrastructure and a percentage of the population might not be linked to any major road network (e.g. Ethiopia). Mountainous terrain and floods can disrupt distribution networks, which communities rely on for healthcare. African market also struggle with a lack of all-season roads, isolating cities and villages during the rainy season.

However where some see obstacles, others see opportunities. Andreas Raptopoulos and Paola Santana co-founded Matternet, a company that enables drones to transport a payload of 1 kg for 15-20 kilometres on a single battery charge.

In March 2016, Matternet launched a pilot with UNICEF in Malawi, to test drone deliveries of blood samples from remote villages and laboratories. The drones also fly back HIV test results, and aim to reduce the wait time for especially infants. The company has worked in Bhutan and with isolated communities in Papua New Guinea, so their experience should come in handy in Africa.

Matternet initial studies indicated that delivery routes are based on past and often outdated population data.  By evaluating the new data collected, Matternet’s team first needs to determine the most optimal deliveries routes or flight paths.

A mobile app enables a user to select the landing location and command take off. The drone flies at around 400 feet and the user can track the course and receives a landing notification. The technology could empower lad technicians to fly HIV tests from remote villages to central hospitals, and decrease the wait time in the process.

There is increased interest in medical drone deliveries in Africa. In Sierra Leone, Moses Bangura developed an open source civilian drone , to deliver medical supplies. The project formed part of his PhD studies and is currently awaiting government approval.