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Drones to the Rescue

It’s expensive to use drones to deliver meds. Not using them exacts a heavier cost.

If we could send fleets of drones flying medical supplies to people in some of the poorest and most remote parts of the world, would it be worth it? Who’s going to pay for the drones, or the equipment needed to house and recharge them? Who’ll pay for the personnel to operate them, and the training required?

Last year I was part of a team that tested product-delivering drones in Mozambique with the help of a computational model of the country’s vaccine supply chain. The supply chain is the series of refrigerators, freezers, vehicles, and personnel involved in getting vaccines from their origin to the people who need them. The Republic of Mozambique, in southeast Africa, has over 24 million people and a GDP of around $35.3 billion—which turns out to be $419 per capita. Mozambique’s 801,537 square kilometers include rugged highlands and mountainous regions, long stretches of plateaus, large rivers, and woodlands filled with wild animals. Heavy rainfalls and cyclones can pummel parts of Mozambique. These conditions can make it dangerous to get vaccines to people.

The “last mile” of the vaccine supply chain—from the district storage facility to the clinics, schools, and homes where vaccines are given—can be tough. Often people on motorbikes, rafts, bicycles, animals, or foot carry vaccines to their final destination. Vaccines are precious because they cost money to develop, can be fragile (heat exposure can make them go bad), and save lives. Sometimes a person has to risk life and limb to carry just a few vaccines to people living far away from any town.

Enter drones. They aren’t just for military operations or taking pictures. Working with global health organizations, companies such as Zipline and Matternet are exploring the use of drones to deliver meds.

Our team at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center at Carnegie Mellon University employed software called HERMES that was specially designed to analyze supply chains. Using it, we developed and ran a series of scenarios, including different challenges a drone might face—inclement weather, wild animals, and even people shooting them down out of fear that they were part of a military operation.

The results? Under a wide range of conditions, drones can provide between 20 and 50 percent cost savings over traditional land-based transport. Of course, the savings depend on the size of the population served, the road conditions, the speed of the land-based transport, the reliability of the drones, and the willingness of people to accept them. But it shows that new technology doesn’t have to be expensive. By improving service and freeing up valuable resources (like the time of workers who’d normally be carrying vaccines long distances), drones can save both money and lives.

Bruce Y. Lee is an associate professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.