The limitations of drones for medicine delivery
It has been almost a decade since the promises of urban autonomous goods deliveries with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) started. However, the reality came to claim that it was not so easy. Main problems are based on short battery life, low load capacity and high economical cost of the carriage.
Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) appeared to be a possible good alternative, though, for deliveries of health equipment (blood samples, vaccines and other medicines) in non-accessible areas (regions with poor road infrastructure), and in temporary efforts during emergencies. The quality of vaccines or blood samples carried by traditional methods and UAVs remains almost the same 1.
For instance, different health material transport initiatives have been tested in Switzerland, United States, Netherlands, Bhutan, Papua New-Guinea, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, Malawi and Haiti, even along with the support of UNICEF, MSF or World Heath Organization [1, 2]. These drones have a load capacity of up to 2 kg, their autonomy is about 30-40 minutes and are able to cover 10 km in 18 minutes at best.
However, there is still scarce empiric evidence of the possible advantages of substituting routine deliveries with UAVs, particularly in African countries with poor road conditions.
The cost of supply-chain logistics in non-vaccine routine immunizations increased dramatically from 2010 to 2020. Some research studies claim the savings in cost of healthcare material deliveries. However, most of these few studies only consider the operational expenditure of the aerial robotic systems against motorbike riders, helicopters, or vans. They do not consider neither the bad weather, extreme temperatures, dust and other boundary conditions that decrease dramatically the UAVs performance.
Moreover, if we take into consideration costs of amortisation, and other sort of expenditures such as training and certification of the drone, insurance, personnel, management, preventive maintenance, accidents or failures, it remains unclear if these technological solutions remain useful substitutes to traditional land-based transport services 2.
As an extra disadvantage, there is still a social rejection due to the repurposed military usage of UAS initially announced as humanitarian tools, as it happened in various African countries 3.
Finally, while Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) for the transportation of health materials are proved to be time efficient in emergency scenarios in good weather conditions, their potential remains limited by their size and design, meaning they will probably not replace helicopters for larger essentials deliveries, but they will serve as a complement .
To sum up, there is still little empirical evidence and experiments that contemplate a wide enough range of boundary conditions and costs in health material delivery with drones. These systems have revealed to be an agile tool for fast transportation and that they keep the medicines properties almost perfect. However, there is still a long time until they completely replace traditional the delivery of medical products both economically and in load capacity.
- Haidari, L. A., Brown, S. T., Ferguson, M., Bancroft, E., Spiker, M., Wilcox, A., & Lee, B. Y. (2016). The economic and operational value of using drones to transport vaccines. Vaccine, 34(34), 4062-4067. ↩
- Ochieng, W. O., Ye, T., Scheel, C., Lor, A., Saindon, J., Yee, S. L., & Karem, K. (2020). Uncrewed aircraft systems versus motorcycles to deliver laboratory samples in West Africa: a comparative economic study. The Lancet Global Health, 8(1), e143-e151 ↩
- Emery, J. R. (2016). The possibilities and pitfalls of humanitarian drones. Ethics & International Affairs, 30(2), 153-165. ↩
A delivery boy from a 24×7 chemist reaches our home on his two-wheeler to deliver urgent medicines, ordered by us just 20 minutes before, say at 1am, during the middle of the night. And there are no extra charges for home delivery. This is in Mumbai, India!. Then, why do we need UAVs (Drones) for such medicine deliveries. Moreover, in most densely packed metropolises like Sao Paulo, Mumbai, etc. a large chunk of population lives choc-a-bloc in slums. There is the GPS aid available to the UAV, but can the UAV land on a street (which is crowded day and night), even within ten dwellings of the household that orders medicines.
One may, of course, point out that the delivery of a rare group blood can be carried out more safely by an UAV. I think a two-wheeler delivery boy like that of Zomato can do so with higher speed and point-to-point!
For that matter, a metro like Mumbai is not just all slums. It has dozens of tall multistory towers like in Manhattan, and just to prove a point a pizza was indeed delivered directly into a high-floor flat of Mumbai through its open window (balcony) as far back as 6 years ago. But it is not practical to send/receive pizzas etc. by drones, considering the economy and quickness offered by delivery boys on two-wheelers.
Talking of timely delivery of human organs, extracted from brain dead people, with prior family consent, have been executed within record times (just a few hours not exceeding 5-6) directly to the recipient’s hospital located hundreds of kms away (even from Chennai or from Delhi to Mumbai, a distance exceeding 1300 km), where surgeons are waiting to perform the surgery. For this, the body organ is rushed to the airport (non-stop on the roads of the donor’s city, on a green-zone created by the traffic police), and upon arrival, once again rushed from the air-plane, with no time lost via the ‘green-zone’ with help from traffic police at the receipient town. Which UAV or Drone can do this?
So. let us not extend the modern technology blindly, without looking at its limitations.
– Prof. Dr. J.V. Yakhmi
These assumptions are not supported by openly available data.
The need for rush/on time medical diagnosis is increasing while the access to clear and open roads is decreasing.
Hospitals use taxi’s or messengers for rush diagnostic samples which puts a 8ml vile in a 1ton vehicle and costs more than 20x that of the average round trip drone flight at scale.
That coupled with the average distance between hospital and lab being well within the range of modern UAV’s makes a compelling case.