Direct Relief consortium completes long-range drone pharma delivery

This week, a consortium led by humanitarian aid organization Direct Relief announced the successful completion of a program testing the potential use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, in delivering temperature-controlled medicines and vaccines.  

Members of the consortium include drone developer Volans-i, biopharmaceutical company Merck, AT&T and passive temperature control packaging company Softbox. 

The successful long-range pilot test was conducted in the Bahamas, where the group tested the viability of using UAVs to safely deliver temperature-sensitive medicines and vaccines to hard-to-reach locations. In the tests, Volans-i built and operated the all-electric drones, while the temperature-controlled payload box was developed by Softbox. Supported by a data dashboard service provided by AT&T, Softbox utilized Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to collect cloud-based, realtime data that was analyzed to ensure continuous temperature tracking and viability of the test.  

According to Direct Relief, the drone program can support the controlled delivery of pharmaceutical goods for temperatures as low as 70 degrees Celsius, which is required for storing and transporting some life-saving medicines and vaccines. 

This most recent test is the fourth in a series of proof-of-concept missions the group has undertaken, following previous tests in Switzerland and Puerto Rico. 

“Experience and research consistently show that those most at risk of health crisis in disasters live in communities which are likely to be cut off from essential health care due to disruption of transportation and communications,” said Andrew Schroeder, who leads analytics programs, data visualization and geospatial analytics for Direct Relief. He added that drone delivery is one of the most promising answers to this problem. 

The consortium, led by Direct Relief, said it will now advance the pilot program so the technology can be tested in Africa and Latin America. 

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Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is the Associate Editor of the company’s daily news and monthly magazine Air Cargo World. She holds two BAs in International Relations and Asian Languages and Cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in International Studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Chelsea speaks Mandarin and Russian.