Pilot to deliver medicines and vaccines by drone

Santa Barbara, California, USA: A consortium carrying out pilots to test the potential to deliver temperature-controlled medicines and vaccines using drones say their success could mark an important step forward in global humanitarian efforts.

Humanitarian aid organisation Direct Relief, MSD, Softbox, AT&T and Volans-i are working together on the project to demonstrate the potential of using drones to safely deliver temperature-dependent medicines and vaccines to hard-to-reach locations.

In the latest test, a drone flew over open water between the islands of the Bahamas, beyond the operator’s line of sight. Volans-i built and operated the all-electric drones, and the temperature-controlled payload box was developed by Softbox and connected by AT&T.

Merck initiated the idea and provided supply chain expertise. The pilot test was conducted autonomously with cold-chain delivery technology allowing for control of medicines and vaccines at temperatures as low as minus 70 degrees C, the temperature required for storing and transporting some life-saving medicines and vaccines.

It used 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.

Richard Wood, director, Digital Connected Technologies, Softbox, said: “This most recent proof-of-concept test has once again demonstrated the capabilities of the Softbox SKYPOD for the transportation of life-saving medicines, this time at ultra-low temperatures. To ensure full track and trace throughout the test flight Softbox utilized Internet of Things (IoT) technologies and data dashboard services provided by AT&T. The data collected during the successful flights has 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.”

While the technology is promising, the potential viability of the technology for real-world application will depend on several factors, including tackling diverse and evolving regulatory challenges around the world.

“This successful pilot demonstrates the potential of innovative UAV (drone) technology to aid in delivery of temperature-dependent medicines and vaccines to people who critically need them,” said Craig Kennedy, senior vice president, supply chain, at MSD. “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 group previously conducted test flights in Switzerland and Puerto Rico. The collaborators will now advance the pilot program so the technology can be tested in Africa and Latin America.

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