Health delivery soaring aloft

UNICEF-drone-trial_2WITHOUT warning it suddenly shot straight into the sky like an elevator on steroids.

White, with a 2.5 metre wing span and made from carbon fibre with a 3D shell, it looked like a sci-fi praying mantis as it rocketed into the Takara sky in north Efate.

But it was neither sinister nor the future… it was the now in a world-first test operation for Vanuatu to use commercial drones to deliver life-saving vaccine to children in remote areas of Vanuatu.

The drone in question was from Australian company Swoop Aero, which is one of two companies to win the chance to put Vanuatu into the record books and more importantly stream line vaccine delivery to the remotest places imaginable.

In Vanuatu today, Health Minister Jack Norris officially opened the drone trials for vaccine delivery to children living on remote islands.

The historic event was held at the old Takara Airstrip, just over an hour from Port Vila, with dozens of community members, health workers and children present to witness the drones take to the sky.

“Vanuatu’s development plan, while setting out a vision for a stable, sustainable and prosperous country, demands innovative ways to reach children living in communities on remote islands,” said Prime Minister Charlot Salwai.

“It is a proud day for Vanuatu to launch these drone trials using commercial contracts, which will aim to bring life-saving vaccines to our children.’’

In a world first, the Government of Vanuatu awarded three commercial contracts to two drone companies, Swoop Aero Pty Ltd of Melbourne, Australia, and Wingcopter Holding GmbH & Co. KG of Darmstadt, Germany, to help achieve the ‘last mile’ vaccine delivery to the 20 per cent of children living on remote islands who currently do not have reliable access to vaccines.

“In remote settings like this, safely getting vaccines and other essential medical supplies to children presents a unique set of challenges,” said Sheldon Yett, UNICEF Pacific Representative.

“We are proud to support the Government of Vanuatu in exploring new ways to get vaccines safely where they need to go, when they need to go.”

Vanuatu is an island country in the Pacific, an archipelago of 83 islands that covers 1600 kilometres. Only about one-third of the inhabited islands have airfields and established roads, which creates considerable logistical challenges to reach, engage with and support remote communities.

The initial drone trials are taking place from December 5 -7.

UNICEF-drone-trial_1Packages, similar to actual vaccines, will be transported from the old Takara airstrip on North Efate, flown over Emao, Pele and Nguna islands, and then reach their destination, Siviri football field – a distance of about 50km.

“Through the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the innovationXchange is pleased to partner with the Vanuatu Government and UNICEF in trialling innovative technologies to solve significant health challenges in Vanuatu,” said Dr Sarah Pearson, DFAT’s Chief Innovation Officer.

“We look forward to learning from this trial and understanding how the use of drones could help prevent disease in a cost effective manner particularly in a challenging environment such as Vanuatu.”

Following the trials, the Ministry of Health and Civil Aviation Authority of Vanuatu will consider the approval of the use of drones for the delivery of vaccines to health facilities on Epi and the Shepherds Islands, Erromango and Pentecost, as soon as January 2019.

Wingcopter boss Lucas Martin described the day as a ‘step into the future’ and Swoop Aero CEO Eric Peck said they hoped the use of drones would see the figure of one in five children not having access to vaccines in Vanuatu drop dramatically.

A government spokeswoman said throughout the drone trials, healthcare professionals, government representatives, teachers and children will participate, sharing knowledge and expertise, as well as ensuring cultural acceptability of this new technology.

The project is led by Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health and the Civil Aviation Authority of Vanuatu, with support from UNICEF, the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) innovationXchange, and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.