In a first for the Pacific region, a trial is underway to test the capacity, efficiency and effectiveness of drones to deliver lifesaving vaccines to remote communities in Vanuatu. 

The humanitarian application of ‘drones-for-good’ is a compelling use-case, and the trial aims to assess technologies and operators that can help reduce disruption to the vaccine supply chain, without massive investment in infrastructure and transport.

“Community awareness at Vaemali Health Center, Epi Island, Vanuatu”
July 27, 2017: Dr. Ridwan Gustiana from UNICEF (cold supply chain planning expert) talking to health workers and the community about vaccine delivery tests (photo: Christian Vazquez)

On July 27, the Government of Vanuatu – with the support of UNICEF – announced the participants for the first phase of the Vanuatu drone trial in August 2017. These six self-funded candidates will travel to Vanuatu from countries including the United States, United Kingdom, Israel and Australia to demonstrate the performance of their drones.

Vanuatu is an archipelago of 83 islands separated over 1600km, 65 of which are inhabited. Many are only accessed by boat, and mobile vaccination teams frequently walk to communities carrying all the equipment required for vaccinations – a difficult task in the climate and topography.

The first phase of the drone trial (August 21-25) is an opportunity for the drone community to come to Vanuatu and show the Government and others their capabilities, tested under local conditions: open sea, long distances, harsh terrain, unstable weather, and small villages that require precision and safety in delivery.

Drone trial participants will take off from the old Takara airstrip on North Efate, flying over the offshore islands of Emao, Pele and Nguna and dropping off a package at a cordoned off area aiming to hit ‘bulls eye’ in Undine Bay, a proposed distance of 54km. The drone will then return to land in Takara.

The six candidates selected to participate are: Volans-i inc., Martek Marine Ltd, JAR Aerospace Pty Ltd, Colugo Systems, Finish the Call LLC, and Firetail Bormatec JV. Martek CEO Paul Luen said: “The opportunity to deploy our unique capabilities for the good of the people of Vanuatu was an opportunity we had to grasp. We’re certain we’ll deliver a reliable cargo delivery service to enable long-term deployment at a national level.”

The trial is being conducted in three phases: the technical trial in August; a request for proposal (where vaccines will be delivered to health staff on targeted islands in February and March 2018); and a longer-term integration of drones in regular provincial deliveries of health supplies, later in 2018. 

This is cutting-edge technology – there are few vaccine carriers developed for drones, and these are typically at an early stage. Against that backdrop, the trial is a first step in learning how we can more reliably get health supplies to hard-to-reach communities – but it’s also an opportunity to explore and understand the wider application and potential of drones in the Pacific region and beyond.

For more information, please contact: drones@unicef.org

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