Unicef and two commercial drone manufacturers are taking steps towards automating the distribution of vaccines to the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.
As part of a new trial, the Vanuatuan government has signed contracts with the drone makers, who will use their technology to deliver temperature-controlled samples to 39 remote villages, which health workers would otherwise take days to reach.
Vanuatu is spread out across 83 islands over 1,300km². Only a third of the country can be reached by road or traditional aircraft. Vaccine coverage in the area is now at 85 per cent, and going past that figure with existing options is not feasible, but Unicef hopes that drones can take that figure to 95 per cent.
Eric Peck, CEO of Swoop Aero, which holds one of the contracts, said that the drones will make about two deliveries a day, carrying up to 2.5kg of supplies and flying up to 100km. Initially they will be controlled from the largest villages on each island, but in the future could be controlled from "anywhere in the world."
"Our service will allow a health worker in a village to send us a text message and we can respond on demand, and send the correct number of vaccines directly and in most cases we can be there in under an hour," Peck told The Guardian.
The chief of Unicef's field office, Andrew Parker, said that the trials are exciting but also hold inherent risks, including losing the expensive drones at sea or in a remote area, or even having them shot out of the air by locals.
Unicef has been working with the Vanuatuan government to introduce people to the idea of drone deliveries. However, Peck said, "There's a lot we don't know yet - will they fly reliably, will they land where we want them to land, will the population accept them or will they be taken out of the air by young boys with catapults?"
The drones have other potential uses if the trial is successful, such as delivering blood supplies or collecting pathology samples.
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