Drones are constantly in the news with the likes of Amazon, Wal-Mart, Facebook, Google and more testing them as delivery options. Imagine receiving a book you ordered via Amazon’s drone delivery service or perhaps a hard to find part for your classic car by way of Facebook’s drone delivery service. Depending on one’s location and need as well as lobbying efforts such as Amazon’s rumored spend to educate US government officials on a range of topics including this mode of travel; the future for drone deliveries is a reality.
For healthcare professionals, the use of drones has huge benefits in particular the ability to reach remote areas that lack proper infrastructure to deliver lifesaving drugs and other necessities. Many tests are underway to determine its viability but as one can imagine, it is under much government scrutiny and regulators in many countries are working with the industry to develop requirements for the delivery and flying of drones.
Last year’s devastating earthquake in Nepal saw drones in action. Global Medic, a Canadian charity that provides disaster response in the form of medical assistance, flew drones over the affected areas to study and 3D map the worst hit zones. The information was then passed to rescue workers on the ground to show them exactly where to go.
In Africa, medical deliveries by drone are already underway. US-based startup Matternet has partnered with the government of Malawi and with UNICEF to deliver infant H.I.V. tests within the country and in Rwanda, another start-up, Zipline, is delivering blood and pharmaceuticals to remote locations in hours rather than weeks or months. According to Zipline, its system’s speed makes it possible to maintain a “cold chain” and when it reaches hospitals, they will not land but will drop small packages from very low altitudes. The supplies will fall suspended by simple paper parachutes. The drones will then return to a home base, where they will be prepared for a new mission by swapping in a new battery and snapping in a new flight plan stored in a SIM card.
Drone deliveries are not only in emerging markets. Within the US, NASA partnered with drone startup business, Flirtey to deliver medicines and other medical supplies to an annual free clinic in Virginia. The entire operation took about two hours as Flirtey separated the medical supplies into 24 small packages which were then transported by the drone. The pharmaceuticals were lowered to the ground via tether and health care professionals at the scene received them.
In Europe, DHL is utilizing drones to deliver drugs and other urgent supplies to a remote island in the North Sea. The island, Juist, is only accessible by a once daily ferry service and regular passenger flights. According to a press statement from a DHL Parcel spokesperson back in 2014, deliveries are secured and all types of drugs can be carried except those which are dependent on refrigeration, as a refrigeration unit may be too weighty for the ‘parcelcopter’ to carry.
Also in Europe, a very interesting product has recently been introduced by Flash, a logistics provider that focuses on premium freight delivery services. Flash’s drone is one of the more unique in the market. Each drone is equipped with biologistic isothermal packaging for temperature control and monitoring and travels on a predefined and programmed flight path directed by longitude and latitude coordinates. Testing is expected to take place this year at the University Hospital Center of Bordeaux, a partner of Drones for Life which is a group of healthcare, technology and development experts trained to route and test drones safely and one in which Flash is a member. The delivery service itself will be marketable in Europe by 2017.
Is drone delivery viable? According to various market research companies, the estimated market size of the commercial drone market was about $609 million in 2014 and is expected to grow roughly to $4.8 to $6.4 billion by 2021. The market faces numerous challenges, most importantly how to share air space with larger airplanes as well as privacy and security concerns. However, its benefits in delivering life-saving pharmaceuticals to remote areas cannot be denied and perhaps this is ‘secret sauce’ within supply chains. But, like many other great innovations, its use will evolve and expand over time to perhaps delivering to the elderly and shut-ins to delivery within ‘smart cities’. The possibilities are endless.