UAVs to the rescue for Botswana’s pregnant population


Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones, are providing lifesaving care to women in remote parts of Botswana, who face the possibility of death in childbirth.

An initiative to curb preventable maternal deaths and overcome geographic barriers led by the Botswana Ministry of Health and Wellness, the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) and supported by the United Nations, plans to “revolutionise” delivery of essential medical supplies and services across the country.

Two years ago the country recorded a maternal mortality rate of 166 deaths per 100 000 births, over double the average for upper middle income countries, a UN statement said, adding women in remote communities were more at risk.

This is supported by Lorato Mokganya, Ministry of Health and Wellness chief health officer.

“When a woman loses blood during childbirth and needs to be transferred to a medical facility, she first needs to be stabilised before being moved. Timely delivery of blood can be lifesaving. A drone can deliver blood to stabilise the patient,” she said.

“Timeliness in attending to women experiencing pregnancy and childbirth-related complications is paramount, especially in remote and hard to reach areas,” Dimane Mpoeleng, computer science lecturer at the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST), said.

Leading causes of maternal deaths in Botswana are excessive bleeding, complications post abortion and hypertensive disorders during pregnancy.

Last mile delivery of lifesaving medical products and supplies is challenging in the large and sparsely populated country with long distances between lower and higher level facilities. This is heightened in hard to reach places where shortage of vehicles, inaccessible roads and inefficient supply chain systems all increase the difficulty factor, the UN said.

In May, the university, government and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) joined forces to launch Botswana’s first drone delivery project – “Drones For Health”. With this initiative, Botswana became the first country in southern Africa and third in Africa, after Ghana and Rwanda, to pilot drone technology for healthcare support.

Drones will reduce delivery time from hours to minutes, improving arrival of obstetric emergency supplies and saving lives.

Beatrice Mutali, UNFPA Botswana country director, sees the project as a game-changer, not only improving maternal health also transforming the country’s health system.

“At UNFPA, we envision a world where no woman dies while giving a life and this initiative promises to alleviate maternal deaths in Botswana,” Mutali said, adding “innovation is an indispensable engine to bring transformative change for women, girls and young people”.

For example, women at rural facilities like Mogapi Health Centre, which serves over 3 000 people, will benefit from the speed and efficiency of drone technology.

Each battery-powered UAV has a delivery distance of 100 km and can carry up to 2 kg of cargo.

Four villages were chosen for the pilot project. The drones are automatically programmed for take-off and landing and return another load of supplies. Community members in pilot areas supported building all drone landing pads at designated health posts.