A drone delivery project that saves lives in Rwanda is a partnership between the government and California-based robotics company, Zipline, Inc. Photo by: Sarah Farhat / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

SAN FRANCISCO — In Vanuatu, villages reachable only by banana boats are now receiving vaccines via drone delivery.

The South Pacific country, made up of 83 islands, launched its drone program in December 2018, and is testing this approach to delivering vaccines to hard to reach areas with support from the United Nations Children’s Fund, the Australian government, and the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Swoop Aero, an Australian startup, won a contract to serve three islands after proving its drones could deliver temperature-controlled vaccines 30 miles and land within a six-foot circle.

Donors have backed the test deployment of drones across a range of use cases, from vaccination transport to blood delivery to vector control. But duplicated efforts have hindered progress, and donors saw a need to come together to help drones realize their potential for last mile delivery of essential medical supplies.

For the past six months, seven major donors and international organizations have worked to coordinate investments for unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, in global health. They are working under the umbrella of the Interagency Supply Chain Group, which brings 16 global agencies together to coordinate work on health supply chains. On Friday, the UAS coordinating body launched a website to share their learnings around drones for payload delivery and invite other donors to join.

“Do we need 10 different investments doing the same thing in different geographies? The answer is ‘no.’”

— David Sarley, senior program officer, the Gates Foundation

An investment roadmap

“Despite the potential of UAS in global health and donors' funding commitments, our disparate investments did not allow us to learn from each other, preventing us from advancing the UAS market more efficiently and effectively,” Rachel Fowler, program analyst at the USAID Center for Innovation and Impact, told Devex via email.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, donor agencies from the United Kingdom and Germany, as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Fund, UNICEF, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance make up the UAS coordinating body.

Sara de la Rosa, UAS coordinator at the Interagency Supply Chain Group, travels frequently to international conferences to share the work the group is supporting. Next week she is heading to Vanuatu to see the new drone program up close.

Rwanda could become a model for drone regulation

When the Rwandan government partnered with Zipline, it set an important example of how governments and companies can work together to leverage the power of technology to benefit society.

Her presentation often references a UAVs in global health roadmap created by USAID. It outlines four stages of investment, starting with a coordinating body, then prioritizing use cases and laying the foundation for future investment, before moving toward more targeted investments and addressing any roadblocks.

Coordinating between partners across different time zones and in different stages of their journey supporting UAS has been challenging, according to de la Rosa. But while it is still early days, the group is already seeing examples of impact from better coordination.

USAID and its partners have identified some of the most promising UAS use cases, including delivery in response to medical emergencies, “just in time” resupply to prevent stockouts, and the two-way transport of samples and treatments, Fowler said.

“These use cases aren't the only ones with large potential or the only ones that donors should invest in, but rather give us an opportunity to move past illustrative guidance and assessments and towards concrete recommendations for how to better invest in UAS,” Fowler said.

Building off of this work, USAID and its partners are now working on a monitoring and evaluating framework to standardize how they measure results, she said.

The challenges of collaboration

The Gates Foundation was an early investor in Zipline, which transports blood and other essential medical supplies in Rwanda and will soon expand to Ghana. But David Sarley, senior program officer at the Gates Foundation, said the foundation has not shared much of its support of drones widely.

In countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, the military use of drones made the use of drones for global health goals such as polio eradication a sensitive topic, he said.

This is one of the challenges that stand in the way of donors sharing learnings about these investments, he said. At the same time, because this is a relatively new space, donors can be competitive. This desire to be the first agency to back a particular use case is part of the reason for the proliferation of pilots, he said.

“Do we need 10 different investments doing the same thing in different geographies? The answer is ‘no,’” he said.

Sarley said he wants to see more joint investments, not disparate investments backing the same use cases in a number of countries, as well as new market entrants beyond Zipline.

He also talked about the importance of a push and pull effect so that it is not only suppliers aiming to grow market share, but also health ministry officials who understand the opportunities and tradeoffs and decide to invest in drones.

While a key objective of the UAS coordinating body is sharing learnings, that is is not enough, Fowler said.

“We must hold ourselves accountable,” she said.

As donors explore this emerging technology, they need to make coordinated decisions about those investments, so that they are cost effective and sustainable, while acknowledging the risks of UAS which at this point are not fully understood, Fowler said.

What success looks like

In June, the Lake Victoria Challenge will gather investors, businesses, regulators, and others in Mwanza City, Tanzania to ask: “What could happen if Africa can unlock the lower skies as a resource for mobility?”

While coordination among donors will be essential for drones to realize their potential in global health, that is only one piece of the puzzle. Regulation is also key, said Timothy Reuter, who leads the World Economic Forum’s work on drones and has worked closely with the donors and international organizations behind the UAS coordinating body.

Reuter is involved in the Lake Victoria Challenge as part of a larger goal to support pan African regulations for drones. A key challenge for donors is how to get not just the ministry of health, but also other key actors like the civil aviation authorities, to support this work, he said.

Ultimately, the driving goal of this UAS coordinating body is not just for donors to coordinate more effectively with one another, but rather for them to support country governments to integrate UAS into their health systems.

In the near term, Fowler said she would like to see the development of a standardized way of measuring the impact of UAS, firmer understanding of current and potential markets across supply and demand, and guidance to navigate regulation and infrastructure roadblocks.

All too often, the global health community is a late adopter of promising new technologies such as UAS, she explained.

“We believe that as these technologies are still early-stage and rapidly evolving, the development community has an important opportunity to help shape and accelerate the appropriate and effective implementation so that it can reach scale quickly,” Fowler said.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.