By Dumisani Kaliasati

Malawi has some of the highest HIV rates in the world, with 10,000 children dying from it yearly. Maternal mortality rates are at 634 deaths per 100,000 live births, and mortality under five years old is at 0.64%. Getting people tested and delivering medicine is a challenge given that over 80% of the population live in rural areas characterized by bad terrain and poor or non-existent road networks. Floods during rainy season completely cut off road networks, making it very hard for health services to reach remote areas.

It currently takes an average of 11 days to get samples from health centers to testing labs, and up to four weeks for the results to be delivered back. The longer the delay between test and results, the higher the risk for the patient. Unfortunately, the situation for rural populations in many other developing countries is similar.

Drone technology for the delivery of medical diagnostics and treatment can provide an effective solution. Drones are not limited by bad terrain or poor road networks, and they use low-cost battery power. They could reduce the delivery of blood samples for HIV tests and other time-sensitive supplies from 11 days to less than 30 minutes.

The Malawi-based startup company MicroMek is developing low-cost, autonomous, fixed-wing drones made from 3D printed parts and foam board. They will be used for the delivery of medicine, vaccines and HIV test kits for young children and pregnant women in Malawi. The project is called FlyingThings, and it can contribute to progress on SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing) by increasing coverage of essential health services, as called for in SDG target 3.8, among the most disadvantaged populations.

The initiative will also contribute to:

● Target 3.1: By 2030, reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births;
● Target 3.2: By 2030, end preventable deaths of newborns and children under 5 years of age, with all countries aiming to reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1,000 live births and under-5 mortality to at least as low as 25 per 1,000 live births; and
●Target 3.3: By 2030, end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases.

In Kasungu, Malawi, the UN Fund for Children (UNICEF) and the government of Malawi have set up a drone test corridor, which is the largest one in Africa and the only one dedicated to humanitarian operations. On 8-9 November, FlyingThings had the opportunity to run an initial pilot test, where our drone flew an autonomous 19 kilometer journey carrying a simulated drug package in less than 16 minutes.

In January 2019, I was selected as one of 26 global data innovators taking part in the Goalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator. I will receive mentorship and financial support of up to USD30,000, which I will use to develop ten low-cost autonomous Ecosoar drones and put them to the test. These tests will generate data to help us study the effectiveness of the solution, and point towards ways to improve delivery reliability. We will also perform needs assessments with the help of health clinics and rural communities, in order to shape future programs. We hope to show how solid and well-analyzed data can contribute to achieving the SDGs.

In the future, drones will be employed to solve a myriad of challenges and improve the lives of people with diverse needs. I am excited to participate in the early stages of this evolution, and to apply its potential to ensuring universal access to maternal, newborn and child health.

This article was originally published by the IISD on February 21, 2019 – Drones for SDGs: Fast, Low-cost Delivery of Health Care Supplies for Remote Populations in Malawi. We grant you a nonexclusive, nontransferable, limited right to access, use and display the article, provided that you comply fully with the terms and conditions of the original publisher.

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