Ethiopia establishes long-range medical drone network to reach six communities

A new long-range drone network in Ethiopia has completed a 30-day project delivering medical items, including 6,936 vaccine doses in 44 total flights to six hard-to-reach communities, according to press release from project member Red Lightning. The first two deliveries in the network took place on 20 October 2023, and included vaccines against tuberculosis, poliovirus, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, Hib, and hepatitis B. These deliveries carried enough vaccines to supply these target locations for one month and mark a significant step in improving healthcare delivery in Ethiopia’s most remote regions.

Following approval announced on 1 December 2023, the medical drone network is due to run for an additional 90 days starting in early 2024 and the network will double in size.

Australian drone company Swoop Aero’s automated, remote-piloted aircraft Kite can fly up to 120 kilometers with a 3 kg payload before requiring a battery swap. To reach the most remote clinics, a battery swap location has been established midway, extending the network’s reach to 240 kilometers from the distribution hub. The drone flies pre-planned routes that have been mapped to avoid obstacles such as mountains, power lines, and buildings. Kite, takes off and lands vertically, allowing for two-way delivery providing the ability to speed diagnostic samples from hard-to-reach communities to central labs.

The 30-day project was funded by Red Lightning and operated by Freight in Time and the Information Network Security Agency (INSA). Drone logistics is the latest phase in a multi-year initiative to bring supply chain innovation to the last-mile delivery of healthcare items in the region. The Global Fund, the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, the Ethiopian Pharmaceutical Supply Service (EPSS) and Freight in Time (FIT) formed a private-public partnership in 2020 aimed to reduce missed vaccinations, target at-risk-zero-dose children and eliminate medical item stockouts at the local level. The UPS Foundation and GAVI have provided financial support for this PPP since 2022 and have generously committed an additional USD1 million to continue this support through 2024.

The response from the local communities has been overwhelmingly positive, says Red Lightning. This collaborative effort exemplifies the power of innovation, technology, and community engagement in improving healthcare access and saving lives in Ethiopia.

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