Drones assisting healthcare take to African skies


Reaching remote locations for a blood sample or delivering a vaccine in the centre of a vast lake, thick jungle or a rural village is not easy nor cheap. Traditional modes of transport such as a car, truck, train, boat, helicopter or motorbike are generally more expensive, slow and dangerous than a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone). Drones are providing a cheap, quick and safe solution for the hard to reach last stretch of the healthcare supply chain in Africa.

This was one of the findings of a Logistics Update Africa webinar held on 1 July entitled, “Drones for improving healthcare supply chains and creating drone corridors for Africa.”

Geoffrey Nyaga, Chief Operations Officer of Astral Aerial Solutions, began the webinar with a presentation on making aerial solutions more accessible. Nyaga said that his East African based start-up drone company is trying to solve the “Last mile delivery of health and humanitarian cargoes to rural areas in Africa.” Nyaga identified land isolation, the breakdown or lack of roads or railways, the lack of secure storage and warehouses and an inefficient distribution process as key problems in healthcare cargo delivery. “With drones, we can cover the entire country [Kenya] and reach every Kenyan citizen regardless of their geographical location,” said Nyaga.

Astral Aerial Solutions are also tackling the problem of drones with small payloads as they have a delivery drone with a 2 000 kg payload that can fly 1 200 km at a top speed of 230 km/h and land on water if needed.

In concluding his presentation, Nyaga announced that Astral Aerial Solutions has recently teamed up with Wingcopter from Germany to combine their technologies to set up robust delivery networks across Africa and India for expected COVID-19 vaccines and other items.

Sabrina Ravail, head of commercial at Swoop Aero, introduced Swoop Aero as an aero-medical logistics company that integrates air transport in the ‘last and first mile’ in the medical health supply chain.  Their focus is on developing sustainable, fully integrated, two-way aerial supply chains for medical supplies. The Australian-based company currently runs flight operations in four countries. In Vanuatu, the company was the first to deliver vaccines via drone. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they established the first drone port and have plans this year to create the largest two-way medical drone network at 22 000 km. Swoop Aero also operates in Malawi using existing networks. In Mozambique, they are the first company to obtain beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) approvals.

Yaniv Gelnik, global business development lead from Zipline, showcased the California-based company with its unique all-weather drone and parachute delivery system that operates in Ghana and Rwanda. Gelnik announced that they now cover the entirety of Rwanda which has been beneficial in aiding their reaction to COVID-19, and cover around 12 million people in Ghana for various use cases. The Zipline fulfillment centre/base with fully credited storage facilities receives an order for medical supplies at any time of day, nurses or pharmacists pack them into boxes that maintain the right temperature, and the box is placed in the drone which is then set on the launching slide. Zipline then inserts the battery, which it manufactures in Rwanda, into the drone and with the relevant authority, the package is on its way.

Gelnik added that the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) has visited Zipline premises in Rwanda and approved Zipline for operations in Kenya. Their parachute deployment system is also accurate, as Gelnik states that 98% of the time they land the package within a three metre radius of their drop spot. Zipline has also recently launched in the United States as it obtained Federal Aviation Administration approval. Gelnik closed his presentation by saying, “We will soon be launching in a few other places, including Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Israel and the Serum Institute… The Serum Institute is actually a partner of Zipline and we are going to be working together to distribute to about 50 million residents of Maharashtra [India].”

Andi Fisanich, chief of staff at Wingcopter, introduced the company’s unique vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drone that holds the Guinness World Record for fastest commercial drone at 240 km/h. Their drone can travel up to 120 km, carries a payload up to six kilograms, operates with low noise emission, can operate in harsh weather conditions and can fly BVLOS. Wingcopter has entered into a partnership with United Parcel Service (UPS) – however, operations in Africa is the company’s main focus. Wingcopter has done a pilot project in Tanzania for delivery of medical products: it does regular medical deliveries from one hub to three different healthcare facilities as well as transports medical products and blood samples between the mainland and islands in Malawi and recently won the Lake Kivu Challenge for emergency delivery.

Patrick Meier, co-founder of WeRobotics, a non-profit and non-government organisation, said his company is focused on empowering locals with tech-centric solutions. Flying Labs is a knowledge network created by WeRobotics that builds on local expertise for local solutions that spans 30 countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. “The Flying Labs network represents a diverse network of local entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists. Together they demonstrate the power of local leadership,” said Meier. WeRobotics role in Flying Labs is to facilitate knowledge exchange, technology transfers and create new opportunities for local experts. In terms of public health, WeRobotics has an online course for medical delivery drones and hopes to help develop more African drone companies, experts and engineers in the coming years.

The final presenter was Lawrence Amukono, chief national continuous monitoring coordinator at the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority. Kenya began the process of developing drone regulations in 2015 and by 2017 issued remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) regulations. These regulations were annulled by the Kenyan government and in March of this year the Kenyan government approved unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) regulations.

“As we speak right now I can say we have a solid set of regulations,” said Amukono. The KCAA developed its UAS regulations with the help and alignment of the Joint Authorities for Rulemaking on Unmanned Systems (JARUS). Amukono said that the KCAA’s UAS regulations seek to facilitate operations while safeguarding other airspace users and third parties on the ground. The KCAA’s drone regulations currently have two certifications: remote pilot training organisation (RTO) and RPAS operating certificate (ROC), with the latter valid for 12 months. Private operators do not require any particular certification but the operator must be qualified and operations must be conducted within the provisions of applicable regulations. Additional regulations around drone operations in Kenya can be found on the KCAA website.