Humanitarian Aid Gets a Helping Hand from UAS Technology

Drone-package-delivery.jpgIn countries with poor infrastructure and few delivery options, drone technology can be a literal lifesaver in times of crisis. Many humanitarian organizations have experimented with Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) to find survivors in disaster zones, deliver medical supplies and carry out other humanitarian tasks.

Children and adults throughout countries like Malawi, Rwanda and others around the world are greatly affected by timely access to medical treatment and everyday supplies. Drones are about to change all of that.

Drone delivery has already shown the potential to revolutionize medical testing and supply delivery in Malawi, Africa. Due to bad roads and poor transport, citizens often must wait months for HIV and other medical test results, and crucial medical supplies can be slow to arrive. Today, projects are underway to use drones to slash the waiting times.

Drones Help UNICEF Cut Medical Test Delivery Times

Recently, new technologies involving UAS have been tested for their potential to save lives in Malawi. In March 2016, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Malawi government conducted a drone project in hopes of helping thousands of children and adults living with HIV. The disease is a big priority for Malawi, considering 10 percent of its adult population has HIV. Almost 40,000 children were born to HIV-positive mothers in 2014, and about 10,000 of those children died from HIV-related diseases in the country that same year, with less than half of them receiving efficient medical treatment.

Currently, motorbikes are traveling along rough roads to deliver blood samples from remote clinics to specialist testing labs. 10,000 children die every year from HIV and AIDS in part due to delays in getting test results back in time. Deliveries are prone to extreme delays caused by poor roads, high fuel costs and vehicle shortages. They also need to travel with a large amount of samples to make the trip worthwhile.

On average, it takes 11 days to get blood samples from Malawi’s local health centers to a central laboratory for testing by motorbike. It then takes another eight weeks for the results to be delivered back to the patient’s local clinic. This delay can make the difference between life and death, especially as some people with the virus will move away or lose contact with health officials during the long wait.

Humanitarian aid workers are hoping to use drones to solve the logistical challenge of swiftly delivering HIV and AIDS care in rural parts of the country. In time, drones could replace the motorbikes all together. Just as mobile phones have revolutionized healthcare in Africa, drones one day could do the same.

As of today the UN agency is spending up to $1.5 million annually on the delivery of HIV blood samples in Malawi. In contrast, drones cost only a few thousand dollars each, and operating costs are low because they are battery-powered. Fortunately, African governments have given their strong support to UAS technology, and as such, there will be fewer obstacles for drones in Africa—unlike in Europe and North America, where the skies are more crowded and regulations are stricter and more time-consuming to overcome.

Beginning last month, for example, Rwandan doctors and nurses were able to begin ordering blood and emergency medicine via a text message. The use of drones to deliver essential medical supplies is expected to reduce delivery time from 15 hours to 15 minutes. Similarly, the Malawi drone project had drones flying along predetermined routes, all of which could be activated by an app.

Improved Response Times During A Crisis

With Operational Intelligence (OI), a proven technology delivering real-time event monitoring and processing, aerial tools can provide accurate, up-to-date information for better decision making in humanitarian efforts, emergency response and disaster events—safely. The technology also aggregates data from a number of sources such as GPS, weather data and satellites to help drone operators plan more accurate routes.

Drones can use GPS coordinates to land or even deliver supplies by parachute. UAS help capture accurate, up-to-date geographic data—the crucial local information operators rely on to make decisions. This can be valuable data in times of emergencies like natural disasters where infrastructures like roads have been damaged and are impassable.

Light and safe mapping drones offer an immediate eye-in-the-sky overview, capturing high-resolution aerial images that are easily processed. This crucial data is available virtually immediately, all without the hassle and inefficiency of booking and waiting for lower-resolution satellite or manned aircraft data.

Aerial imagery with drones is also reshaping our ability to respond to disasters and crises faster than ever before. With the enormous volume of imagery that can result from just a single drone flight, significant advances are occurring in the assessment and identification of aerial imagery. When disaster strikes, you need accurate data and you need it quick. By flying over an affected area, drones can provide a virtually instant overview of damage and potential needs – safely, and without interfering with ongoing rescue operations. Effective aid distribution is clearly dependent upon accurate geographic information – the more accurate this data, the more effective the distribution of aid will be.

Drones are helping communities around the world respond to crises and provide humanitarian aid. The relatively inexpensive UAS technology can play a valuable role in humanitarian aid and empowering communities by giving them immediate and easy access to geo-data – information that was, until recently, only available to communities in developed countries with the funds required to buy an expensive satellite or manned aircraft imagery.

OI further strengthens how a drone’s capabilities can contribute and provide relief in crisis situations such as these detailed above. Operational intelligence serves as an important enabler that will support the rules governing the broader commercial use of drones across Africa and beyond. Shortening response times, providing an avenue for supply delivery in remote areas and enabling more accurate assessment of where aid is needed is just the start for drones in humanitarian relief.

Want to learn more about operational intelligence (OI) technology that can pave the way for wider use of UAS and drones during disaster relief and humanitarian efforts? Download our eBook “Operational Intelligence: Enabling the Future of Commercial Unmanned Operations.”


Topics: UAS, Operational Intelligence, Drones, Humanitarian Aid