Cargo Drones: New lifeline in the fight against the pandemic & humanitarian crisis

Published: Tuesday, September 14, 2021

“UAVs play a vital role in disaster preparedness and response, from surveying potential transport bottlenecks, to helping to quickly assess damage after an event. While drones are being used successfully for last mile delivery of small medical packages in countries like Rwanda and Ghana, larger capacity drones are needed to better support humanitarian operations in remote locations.” – George Fenton, Chief Executive, Humanitarian Logistics Association

“Drones are a clear part of the future transport and logistics landscape. There is vast potential when it comes to new cargo and delivery services, as well as other innovative applications, including drone flights with passengers on board in the future.” – European Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean

Indonesia, the world’s largest island-nation with over 17,0000 islands and home to more than 270 million people, continues to be ravaged by the more transmissible and deadlier Coronavirus variant, Delta. The pandemic has so far infected more than 4 million Indonesians and killed nearly 140,000 as of early September.

The newly-industrialized oil-rich Indonesia is still faced with poverty and reaching out to those in remote villages during this pandemic is a major challenge.

But thanks to the emergence of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more popularly known in the industry as cargo drones, some remote island villages in the country are getting medical help.

For instance, in Makassar, the capital of Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province, a group of civilian drone enthusiasts have been using their drone skills to provide contactless medicine and food delivery to COVID-19 patients isolating at home, the media reported. The group works 24/7 for what they view as critical life-threatening mission using just five drones.

Garuda Indonesia, the country’s national carrier, has explored the possibility of increasing its cargo fleet by using 100 drones to haul cargo to different islands as early as 2019, in partnership with a Chinese firm.

Rise of Cargo Drones 

Time-bound and faced with limited manpower, governments and healthcare companies have found ways to reach out to more patients this pandemic using cargo drones.

The last-mile delivery of essential medical supplies and products can be very challenging in remote or hard-to-reach areas where there are inaccessible roads, shortage of vehicles and inefficient supply chains.

This pandemic, these cargo drones have become very essential in picking-up and delivering lab samples, medical supplies, transport vaccines, among other medical essentials, saving time and money while saving lives.

In some cases, drones are also used to spray disinfectant in public places or monitor movement of people while providing guidance during lockdown and quarantine.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the global agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide, at least 18 countries have so far used drones for delivery and transportation purposes during this pandemic.

“Some of them did it as part of experimentation and tests, while others maintained their regular drone delivery operations. Three countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, namely Rwanda, Ghana and Malawi reported the use of drones to deliver regular medical commodities, COVID-19 supplies and medical samples since the beginning of the pandemic,” UNICEF said.

But the agency cautioned, while the right drone solution could really offer a breakthrough helping to handle the pandemic crisis, “it also needs to be supported by appropriate regulatory framework, local skills and sustainability plan. Seeing the full picture is essential to enable supply chain managers make cost-efficient and impactful decisions as part of their COVID-19 response.”

Ghana has been using Zipline drones to deliver tens of thousands of temperature and time-sensitive COVID-19 vaccines since the WHO approved its roll-out in late 2020. Canada has also been using drones to reach out its remote communities.

And so does the United States. The US Federal Aviation Authority has so far selected 10 companies for airworthiness certification to use drones for deliveries. These include Zipline, Amazon Prime Air and Wingcopter.

Among air carriers, UPS has intensively used drones during this pandemic taking advantage of its FAA certifications allowing it to deliver short and longer-distance as well as nighttime flights.

COVID-ravaged India where the Delta variant was first discovered is also anticipating to see more cargo drones working. In June, cargo carrier SpiceXpress and e-commerce logistics platform Delhivery, announced their joint venture on cargo drones.

“We are very excited about this project as it promises to be a game-changer in times to come. The MoU is a win-win for both companies leveraging their strengths to deliver great synergies,” SpiceXpress CEO Sanjiv Gupta said in the statement. His company was among the key consortiums shortlisted by India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation to conduct trials on Beyond Visual Line Sight (BVLOS) drones in the country.

Crucial to last-mile delivery

Faced with the challenges of reaching out to communities, patients and healthcare facilities in remote areas, specialists from across the pharma air cargo supply chain had since launched an extensive review on how drones can be used to address the issue.

The nonprofit groups Pharma.Aero and Humanitarian Logistics Association (HLA) had since launched a joint project aimed at developing a strategic roadmap to enable effective transportation of pharma and humanitarian medical goods to remote areas using UAV and drone technology.

The results of the survey and insights gathered amongst the presenters, the attendees and the project group were outlined in a White Paper, marking the completion of their joint project’s first phase. The White Paper examined the competitive positioning of UAV against other transportation modes, the regulatory framework for drone operations and applications of UAV in the Pharma and Humanitarian Air Cargo sector.

Their survey indicated that UAV would become the preferred and efficient transportation solution compared to traditional modes of transport for last-mile delivery, into remote and hard-to-access areas within certain concentration of health facilities like hospitals, health centers, clinics, etc.

But the groups noted for UAV to become an integral part of air cargo, industry and regulatory bodies must work for common goals and standards.

“Countries across the globe need to align on standards, regulations and guidelines to ensure safety of UAV for final mile deliveries. With this, there could be higher understanding and acceptance from the pharma and air cargo industry to increase the use of UAVs as a form of freight transportation in the pharma supply chain,” Pharma.Aero and HLA jointly said in a statement.

“The second phase of the project will involve a UAV flight in Germany capturing different steps of the supply chain journey. The demonstration flight will be filmed and showcased in an interactive and immersive 360° learning video giving our members and other interested parties the opportunity to explore the features and capabilities of drones and UAVs,” they added.

Trevor Caswell, Manager (Demand & Product Development), Edmonton International Airport and Vice Chairman, Pharma.Aero, is convinced that drones will become an integral part of the air cargo industry given today’s situation.

“With the advancements in drone technology coming so far in recent years, the future of UAV is here. Drones being used for last mile delivery is here to stay, and projects like this will provide insights to our members and industry on how drone technology could become more integrated in the pharmaceutical supply chains, delivering life-saving products directly to the end user. It is very exciting for Pharma.Aero to be working with our partners on such a groundbreaking project, where we can incorporate both humanitarian logistical needs and advanced technology to ensure low-cost, reliable and just-in-time delivery of essential goods to where they are needed,” said Caswell.

George Fenton, Chief Executive, Humanitarian Logistics Association, noted, “UAVs play a vital role in disaster preparedness and response, from surveying potential transport bottlenecks, to helping to quickly assess damage after an event. While drones are being used successfully for last mile delivery of small medical packages in countries like Rwanda and Ghana, larger capacity drones are needed to better support humanitarian operations in remote locations.

“More support is needed to help develop the national regulatory frameworks required to ensure effective use of UAVs. The HLA is keen to help generate and share knowledge in the endeavor and is pleased to be collaborating with Pharma.Aero on this project.”

 U-Space package

Last April, the European Commission adopted the U-Space Package—three regulations that essentially creates conditions necessary for both drones and manned aircraft to operate safely in the EU airspace known as the U-Space.

These regulations will become law on 26 January 2023. Essentially, they introduce new services for drone operators, allowing them to carry out more complex and longer-distance operations, particularly in congested, low-level airspace (below 120m), and when out of sight.

The EC believes the U-space creates and harmonizes the conditions needed for manned and unmanned aircraft to operate safely, to prevent collisions between drones and other aircraft, and to mitigate the risks of drone traffic on the ground.

“Drones are a clear part of the future transport and logistics landscape. There is vast potential when it comes to new cargo and delivery services, as well as other innovative applications, including drone flights with passengers on board in the future. This has clear added value in terms of achieving our decarbonization, digitalization and resilience ambitions, and the U-Space package is an important step towards creating the well-functioning, trusted and safe enabling environment that we need to develop a competitive EU drone services market,” said Commissioner for Transport Adina Vălean.

For the pharma industry, the U-Space is a milestone in creating conditions necessary for both drones and manned aircraft as the law is expected to leverage worldwide harmonization of drone operations, considering the potential experiences and foreseen needs to connect with non-European countries.

With cargo drone use likely to increase further for medical and humanitarian reasons, experts predict the drone market to reach $6.15 billion by 2023 from only $3.64 billion in 2020.

Afghanistan gets vital humanitarian aid as Talibans take over

War-torn Afghanistan finally received its first shipment of humanitarian aid on 30 August since the Taliban took over control of the government following America’s withdrawal on its longest war.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the successful airlift meant that it could “partially replenish” health facilities’ reserves and ensure that services can continue, for now.

Some 12.5 metric tons of supplies arrived in the northern airport of Mazar-i-Sharif, aboard a plane provided by the Government of Pakistan. WHO said the shipment consisted of enough trauma and emergency health kits to cover the basic health needs of more than 200,000 people, as well as provide 3500 surgical procedures and treat 6500 trauma patients.

The supplies will be delivered immediately to 40 health facilities in 29 provinces across Afghanistan, the UN agency added.

Airbridge vital

The plane was loaded with the supplies by WHO’s logistics team at the International Humanitarian City in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

It is the first of three flights planned with Pakistan International Airlines to fill urgent shortages in medicines and medical supplies in Afghanistan.

“The support of the Pakistani people has been timely and life-saving,” said Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean. While WHO is working with partners to ensure more shipments to the country, the agency said a reliable humanitarian air bridge is urgently required, to scale up the collective humanitarian effort.

Tens of millions of vulnerable Afghans remain in the country and the work of meeting their needs is now just beginning, said the agency adding that the world cannot now divert its attention from the people of Afghanistan at this critical time.

International community must act

Adding his voice to the appeal, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi has urged the international community to help the many millions in need in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries.

In an appeal for long-term solutions for Afghans whose lives have been blighted by 40 years of war, the UN Refugee chief said that although thousands had managed to escape via Kabul airport, “there will still be millions who need the international community to act”.

Millions of Afghanistan were displaced this year. Their priorities include shelter and non-food aid; water, sanitation and hygiene, collectively known as WASH; health, protection, and humanitarian assistance in border areas, as well as emergency livelihood support and social cohesion.

Currently, some 5.5 million Afghans are internally displaced, including more than 550,000 who were newly displaced this year, almost half of whom fled their homes since July.

More than 18 million Afghans, or nearly half the population, already required humanitarian assistance, including 10 million children, with needs expected to rise. Source: UN