Vanuatu to Pilot its Drone Delivery in September

Vanuatu (pronounced as Van-oo-AH-too), a country located at the South Pacific Island has good news to its health sector. The country has 83 volcanic islands spread across 1,600 kilometers. The distribution of medical facilities has always been a challenge in the country due to its topography and poor infrastructure. This makes it even harder to deliver the medical resources at the right time frame.

However, the country will carry out piloting of delivery drones from September 2018.  The developments will not be for the sake of mere demonstration like many of them that have taken place from the likes of Google and Amazon. This will be a move to use drones in the medical sector. The federal government has invited companies to place their tenders. The tenders will be of supplying vaccines to scattered health clinics and hospitals on three different islands. The government has already put in place a contract for every island. It expects to get three companies that will undergo a two-month trial from September.

Different companies will have opportunity to showcase their business models and technology. According to UNICEF’S project manager Christian Vazquez, the organization first needed to see if the drones were up to the task. After piloting period, they will be examined if at all they can raise their level of service delivery. This will be more so if they will be in a position to reduce their delivery time. The expenses to be incurred in the process will also be put into consideration. The country is now using a nine-seater plane to deliver vaccines from the three major islands to small rural islands. One person from the local medical facility has to travel to the grass airstrip to wait for the plane.

A health worker then takes the vaccine packed in ice. He or she has to hurry back to the clinic to stash the previous vials in a refrigerator. This is only if the fridge and the solar power in the clinic are working. Any minor breakdown will be a serious issue since it will take a long time to get the spare parts to the clinic. This makes the whole operation more expensive. The other delicate process involves taking the vaccines to the main clinic on every island. According to Vasquez, every island has many isolated and remote villages. The people staying in these villages might not visit the clinic. Many of the villages are traditional and ruled by the chiefs. People live in family settings, and they do not migrate. This makes no need of building roads that link different villages. UNICEF employees have to hike for hours over volcanic mountain ridges anytime they deliver vaccines to the villages.

Currently, UNICEF workers and health workers deliver vaccines to around 80/85% of children in Vanuatu. It is harder to get to the remaining 15/20%. Vanuatu government together with UNICEF believes that drone companies are the longtime solution to the logistic problem. The move might also be economical to flu vaccines from the main island to the small ones. The later will be tested at the later period of the project. In case it works out the model can be used in the whole of Pacific island.

Wingcopter, a Germany based drone company is among those looking forward to placing their bids. Its CEO Ansgar Kadura said that many clients use the company’s Wingcopter 178 for remote sensing and mapping. But its latest model Wingcopter 178 Heavy Lift has 6 kilograms of maximum payload. Moreover, it is well designed for cargo delivery. Kadura hopes that the health care sector and other sectors will have various reasons to use the company’s drones. This will be possible the moment Vanuatu puts in place regulations and infrastructure to support drone network. The company’s drones are designed in a hybrid way, in that they use both propellers and fixed wings. The two features allow them to take off and land vertically like a helicopter. They are also in a position to fly efficiently like a plane. Its Heavy Lift model is made up of a range of 100 kilometers and uses the parachute to drop cargos. Another company looking forward to submitting its bid is Skybase from New Zealand founded by Michael Read. Read said that the company is prepared to showcase its unseen drone technology. Presently many drone regulations call for checking on the flair by the operators. He added that Vanuatu gives the best environment for demonstration. Apart from flying to where one cannot see the drone, they also have to fly to places where the drones cannot be seen by radio signals.

Operators will use either satellites or aircraft to send signals the moment delivery drones fly past mountains. According to Read, getting such data systems for drones was a hard challenge. He added that Skybase incorporates mesh network technology. The technology offers operators a chance to view real-time video from the drone. It also allows them to control its flight in real time if need be. He said that his company is a data and networking firm. They use the drone in data delivery using an airborne mesh network. According to Read, Skybase is in a position to channel its control systems and software onto any given piece of hardware. This makes it offer services its customers’ needs. The company will also use hybrid design with propellers and fixed wings.  Skybase collaborated with a US-based drone company MAG Aero known for operations using surveillance.

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Written by Denis Opudo

Am an engineer who's a tech blogger, hit me up on [email protected] and we base our discussion on technology in Pacific countries and the rest of the world.
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