Long-Range Drone Delivers Cold-Chain Medicines, Vaccines Between Islands in Caribbean


Central America and the Caribbean

Direct Relief, Merck, Softbox and Volans-i tested a program that would deliver cold-chain medicines via drone in case of disaster.(Photos courtesy of Merck)
Direct Relief, Merck, Softbox and Volans-i tested a program that would deliver cold-chain medicines via drone in case of disaster.(Photos courtesy of Merck)

In what could represent a significant step forward in biopharmaceutical supply chain innovation and for humanitarian efforts around the world, a consortium comprised of AT&T, Direct Relief, Merck and Softbox has completed a program testing the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, also known as drones) to deliver temperature-dependent medicines and vaccines to hard-to-reach locations.

“Experience and research consistently show that those most at risk in disasters live in communities which are likely to be cut off from essential health care due to disruption of transportation and communications,” said Andrew Schroeder, director of research and analysis at Direct Relief. “Drone delivery is one of the most promising answers to this problem.”

In the test, a UAV flew over open water between the islands of the Bahamas, beyond the operator’s line of sight.

The fully autonomous flight incorporated cold-chain delivery technology allowing for precise control of temperatures as low as minus 70 Celsius, the level required for storing and transporting some life-saving medicines and vaccines. It utilized live, continuous temperature tracking through the duration of the flight with cloud-based, real-time data analysis and collection, designed to ensure safe and effective delivery.

“While more remains to be done to operationalize medical cargo drones in distress, successful tests like this one demonstrate that remarkable new humanitarian capabilities are emerging quickly,” said Schroeder.

Volans-i built and operated the all-electric drones. Softbox developed the temperature-controlled payload box, which was connected by AT&T. Merck initiated the idea and provided supply chain expertise.

“This successful pilot demonstrates the potential of innovative UAV technology to aid in the delivery of temperature-dependent pills and vaccines to people who critically need them,” said Craig Kennedy, senior vice president of supply chain at Merck. “The potential of UAV technology is just one of the many areas in which we are innovating across our business and our supply chain to maximize our ability to save and improve lives around the world.”

The pilot in the Bahamas was the fourth in a series of proof-of-concept missions the group has undertaken to demonstrate the potential of delivering temperature-controlled medicines and vaccines using drones.

“Our goal is to revolutionize the way goods and people move in the world,” said Hannan Parvizian, CEO and co-founder of Volans-i. “demonstrating our ability to make temperature-controlled drone deliveries in various climate and terrain conditions across these pilots is a first step towards realizing our vision for a world in which no one should be deprived of access to life-saving medical supplies and vaccination due to lack of infrastructure and responsiveness of the transportation ecosystem.”

The group previously launched test flights in Switzerland and Puerto Rico.

“The data collected during the successful flights have shown everybody involved the power of IoT to provide full visibility of the cold chain, even in the most extreme environments while using innovative transportation modes,” said Richard Wood, director of digital connected Technologies at Softbox.

The organizations involved in the successful pilot plan to continue to explore ways in which this technology can be used to deliver life-saving medicines and vaccines to the communities that need them most.

“Through close collaboration with Direct Relief, Merck, Volans-I and AT&T, we have successfully proven the capabilities of this unique and ground-breaking combination of cutting-edge technologies and now will focus our efforts on completing subsequent pilot projects,” said Wood.

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