Swoop Aero c-drone carrying vaccines for children over Vanuatu. Image: © UNICEF

UNICEF organizes vaccine deliveries by c-drone for South Pacific archipelago

Emergency response Logistics • freight • delivery

The small South Pacific island archipelago nation of Vanuatu, with support from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Australian government’s innovationXchange, has launched a medical delivery program with c-drones, starting with vaccines. This follows calls for tender in June resulting in 20 competitive bids. Commercial contracts were signed by the Civil Aviation Authority of Vanuatu (CAAV) on behalf of Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health and Ministry of Infrastructure & Public Utilities in October, with Australia’s Swoop Aero winning two bids and Germany’s Wingcopter the third.

In a press release, UNICEF said:

Vaccines are difficult to transport as they need to be carried at specific temperatures. Warm weather locations like Vanuatu, which is made up of more than 80 remote, mountainous islands stretching across 1,300 kilometers and with limited roads and no railways, are particularly difficult locations for vaccine delivery.

The Director General of the Ministry of Health in Vanuatu, George Taleo, said in October: “Ensuring vital supplies at health facilities are consistently available is an ongoing challenge for Vanuatu due to geography, logistics and high costs. An important step for dealing with some of these challenges to providing healthcare to vulnerable communities is looking at innovative ways such as the use of drones.”

The island of Erromango, where the first commercial flight took place, is one of the larger of the 65 inhabited islands in the volcanic archipelago. There are few roads and tracks and for some isolated communities there are no direct overland routes over the rugged terrain. Boat service is available but expensive. Due to the fragility of the vaccines which must be kept cool during transport, they must be administered upon arrival, sometimes after hours of hiking. Cellphone coverage is spotty, which makes vaccination coordination with a local nurse and patients complicated.

Miriam Nampil, the nurse who administered the drone-delivered hepatitis and tuberculosis shots to baby Joy Nowai on Erromango, said: “It’s extremely hard to carry ice boxes to keep the vaccines cool while walking across rivers, mountains, through the rain, across rocky ledges. I’ve relied on boats, which often get cancelled due to bad weather.”

Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF continue the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) started decades ago to ensure babies from birth to 12 months receive regular health checks and immunization through clinics and outreach to protect them from vaccine-preventable illnesses. Although vaccination rates have increased dramatically over the past thirty years, a vaccination coverage survey in 2016 found that 1 in 5 children in Vanuatu still miss out on essential childhood vaccines. In 2017, UNICEF donated four vehicles for hospitals and clinics on the islands of Éfaté and Espiritu Santo and in June of that year, UNICEF launched a drone challenge pilot project, already foreseeing regular medical drone deliveries.

Besides Erromango, vaccine deliveries are planned for remote communities over a 9 week period for Épi Island and the nearby Shepherd Islands group by Swoop, and Pentecost Island by Wingcopter. Flights will originate from central distribution points. Trial flights have recently been conducted over the grouped islands of Éfaté, Emao, Pele, and Nguna, north of the capital, Port Vila, from an old unused airstrip built by US Navy Seabees in 1942.

Swoop c-drones flew overall 152 miles (245km) Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) via waypoints and range for a single flight is over 62 miles (100km), according to the company. Swoop’s autonomous, weather-resistant drones use the Iridium satellite network for control and communications, independent of local infrastructure, and are thus adapted to use in very remote environments. The airframe can supply energy to the insulated cargo pod although Swoop found that packing the vaccines in ice was simpler and more reliable, maximizing available power for the rotors and communications. The vaccines are accompanied by a temperature logger, triggering an electronic indicator if the temperature of the vaccines rises above or falls below the acceptable range during transport; the tenders call for 2° to 8° Celsius (36° to 46° Fahrenheit). Wingcopter’s autonomous weather-resistant c-drones have articulated rotors for VTOL (vertical Takeoff & Landing) and have a range of over 62 miles (100km) with a 4.4 lb (2kg) payload. Wingcopter currently holds the world speed record for a commercial VTOL drone of 150mph (240km/h).

Delivery of medical supplies by c-drone is an emerging trend, as time-sensitive medication and biological payloads are small and light. In East Africa, Wingcopter has flown its DHL Parcelcopter over Lake Victoria during a six-month pilot program, logging 1,370 miles (2,200 km) over more than 30 flights. In Malawi, UNICEF has worked with the government to create a drone corridor (see our interview with Judith Sherman of UNICEF and UNICEF’s Office of Innovation). California startups Zipline and Matternet are active in the medical delivery sector; over the past two years, Zipline has delivered blood to doctors in Rwanda and Tanzania and has just obtained a four-year contract for Ghana, while Matternet has a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) waiver [PDF] to test flights with US hospitals and has partnered with Swiss Post to transport laboratory samples autonomously 2 miles (2.5 km) between University Hospital Zurich and the University of Zurich after tests there and in Berne.