Direct Relief, Merck, AT&T, Softbox and Volans-i recently tested emergency medical supply deliveries using drones in Puerto Rico, almost one year after Hurricane Maria.
The drones were flown beyond the visual line of sight in challenging terrain in remote areas impacted by the hurricane. In upcoming tests, the drones will fly over sea to deliver medicines and vaccines.
The organizations are testing unmanned aircraft and the coordinated processes needed to provide medical supplies by drone in a temperature-controlled environment with real-time monitoring. The long-distance deliveries must comply with U.S. and Puerto Rico laws and regulations for prescription drug delivery, including a documented chain of custody; Federal Aviation Administration approval for flight plans; and for some products, consistent refrigeration.
The drones are designed to carry the types of medications people often lose access to in disasters, the partners explain. The technology allows for temperature control for products such as some of Merck’s vaccines, and the non-refrigerated cargo can carry medications for asthma and hypertension, for example.
In this pilot program, each organization has brought something different to the table:
- Direct Relief is coordinating the effort, testing how the systems can be deployed in an emergency, and secured the participation of health centers in Puerto Rico;
- Merck conceived the project and is funding the tests and donating medications for delivery, using its Las Piedras facility as the departure point;
- Softbox makes the small, temperature-controlled packaging system for transporting medications requiring refrigeration;
- AT&T’s Internet of Things (IoT) technology is being used to monitor the temperature and location of Softbox’s cold chain boxes; and
- Volans-i is providing the long-range delivery drones and is controlling the flights.
“Post-Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico has become a hotbed of innovation in disaster relief and healthcare resiliency,” says Andrew Schroeder, director of research and analysis at California-based Direct Relief. “In emergency response, we need to quickly get medicine to remote locations that may be otherwise reachable only by helicopter. As drone technology and systems for managing them improve, we expect them to save lives in places where disasters have cut off access to critically needed healthcare.”
“Disaster is still fresh in the minds of the people of Puerto Rico,” adds Jose Juan Dávila, vice president and general manager of AT&T Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. “Devastated by one of the worst hurricane seasons on record last year, the island is still in recovery mode. We participated in a drone trial in Puerto Rico to show it’s possible to use drones to deliver temperature-sensitive medicines in places with difficult-to-reach terrains.”