How could drones be used to help tackle COVID-19

As the entire world faces the threat of novel coronavirus, the scientific community has collaborated like no other time in history. This will foster new technologies that benefit society. There has been a lot of attention on developing a vaccine to COVID-19, but the challenge doesn’t stop there. Already strained health systems will need additional solutions to help minimize the impact of COVID-19.

As I was listening to the news this week, I began brainstorming ways that technology could positively impact vulnerable populations. Some vulnerable populations include the elderly, people residing in rural areas with less medical accessibility, and those living in countries with strained health systems pre-COVID-19. Drones can help address challenges within these populations in three ways:

Delivery of groceries and medications

So far, social distancing has proved an effective method to prevent the transmission of the virus. Globally, governments at the national and local level have implemented stay-at-home orders. Businesses deemed “non-essential” have been required to close. However, operations such as grocery stores and pharmacies have been categorized as “essential” and are permitted to stay open. While some grocery stores have put in place limits to the amount of shoppers in their stores, others have not.

Using drones to deliver groceries and pharmaceutical drugs could further limit human contact in stores. The elderly, who are most at risk, could have their needed medications delivered straight to their door via drone.

Companies in the U.S. began to experiment with the idea in late 2019 after approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). At the time, Walgreens announced a partnership with FedEx and Alphabet’s Project Wing to deliver basic pharmacy goods to a population of 22,000 in Virginia. UPS soon followed in a partnership with CVS. With some experts warning that we should be prepared to undergo multiple periods of social distancing, this solution could help prevent transmission now and in the future.

Transportation of test samples from remote areas to labs

The idea to transport test samples to labs via drones isn’t new, and if correctly applied can have a profound impact. Along with social distancing, the World Health Organization (WHO) has encouraged countries to rapidly test. Unfortunately, rural areas often lack medical access. By quickly transporting samples, drones will help to mitigate this gap.

In Xinchang County, China, drones are being used to deliver lab samples from hospitals to public health testing centers, roughly 2.5 miles away. The new operation has cut delivery times by 50%. Additionally, it’s part of the Chinese tech community’s “contactless delivery” initiative — to help limit potential spread.

Two regions where large potential in test sample transportation via drones exists are Latin America and Sub Saharan Africa. When samples are collected at a rural medical facility they are then transported to a testing facility. In rural areas with inadequate road infrastructure, transportation by ground vehicle often takes hours to reach its destination. Utilizing drones will produce faster results, prevent spread between communities and in the process save more lives.

On-demand delivery of necessary medical equipment

Zipline, a medical product delivery based in California, uses drones to transport necessary supplies on-demand. They currently operate in Rwanda and Ghana, serving a total of 22 million people. Zipline’s operation turns a normally 4 hour ground delivery into a 45 minute drone delivery. They mostly deliver blood, however in the COVID-19 crisis they have also transported protective masks and gloves.

As national health systems become strained, so do the logistics of transporting necessary supplies. The current COVID-19 crisis has required diligent use of medical supplies. Those who are in the greatest need of protective equipment, health workers, have been facing shortages. Moreover, in middle and low income economies, supplies are usually stored in a central location not outlying medical facilities. When stock is running low, outlying medical facilities contact the central facility who then sends the needed supplies.

Zipline’s operation has proven successful and can be implemented elsewhere. Its shown flexibility as they incorporate new products into their delivery.

Of course there are other factors to consider, primarily safety and airspace regulations. However, global challenges cultivate collaboration and persistence among a wide array of people. Input from all stakeholders will lead to the correct solution. Just as we have previously faced worldwide issues, I’m confident we’ll unite to confront COVID-19.

Interested in entrepreneurship, Latin America, and Sub Saharan Africa. Aerospace engineering student at The University of Texas at Austin.

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