Consortium tests using UAS to deliver temperature-dependent medicines and vaccines to hard-to-reach locations



A consortium made up of AT&T, Direct Relief, Merck and Softbox has completed a program that tested the potential of using UAS to deliver temperature-dependent medicines and vaccines to hard-to-reach locations.

During testing, a UAS flew over open water between the islands of the Bahamas, beyond the operator’s line of sight (BLOS).

“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,” explains Andrew Schroeder, director of research and analysis at Direct Relief.

“Drone delivery is one of the most promising answers to this problem.”

“Cold-chain” delivery technology was used during the fully autonomous flight, allowing for precise control of temperatures as low as minus 70 Celsius, which is the level needed to store and transport some life-saving medicines and vaccines. The technology used live, continuous temperature tracking throughout the flight with cloud-based, real-time data analysis and collection, which is designed to make sure that deliveries are completed safely and effectively.

“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,” Schroeder says.

The UAS used during testing were built and operated by Volans-i. The temperature-controlled payload box was developed by Softbox, and AT&T connected it. The idea was initiated by Merck, whom provided its supply chain expertise during testing. 

“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,” says 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.”

This pilot was the fourth in a series of proof-of-concept missions that the consortium has conducted to showcase the potential of using UAS to deliver temperature-controlled medicines and vaccines.

Previously, the group launched test flights in Switzerland and Puerto Rico.

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