The Ministry of Health is collaborating with partners to develop and apply drone technology to distribute medical supplies and equipment to remote parts of the country.
The ministry will begin a pilot project in September that runs to the end of the year. The delivery of medicine and blood supplies to areas that are not easily accessible by roads will be accomplished by using drone technology. The Ministry will undertake the project in two separate phases; one with the Ministry of Science & Technology and the other with Zipline, a drone management and operations company that has conducted similar projects in Rwanda.
“We will carry out the pilot projects with both entities but separately. After which we will choose one of them to partner with,” Amir Aman (MD), Minister of Health told Fortune.
With the Ministry of Science, the agreement is to use drones with five kilograms of carrying capacity, while Zipline uses drones that can carry up to two kilograms.
If the project proves successful, the ministry expects to deliver medical supplies using 24 drones starting in January of next year. A request for permits to fly the drones has been submitted to the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority.
“The pilot project will be conducted free of charge,” Amir said. After successful completion of the pilot project, the drone delivery project will be outsourced to one of the two winning parties. “In outsourcing to a third party, the M\ministry has pre-negotiated a rate of 1,200 Br a trip with the Ministry of Science & Technology and 3,000 Br a trip with Zipline, based on who wins,” Amir told Fortune.
Six cities, Addis Abeba, Meqele, Hawasa, Jima, Dire Dewa and Bahir Dar have been selected as dispatch centres, and the drones will operate in an area that covers a 150Km radius from each dispatch centre.
“Drone technology is being widely used to reach inaccessible areas in different parts of the world. Thus, the Ministry plan’s to be a part of this is commendable,” said Yihenew Wondie (PhD), a assistant professor at Addis Abeba University’s School of Electrical & Computer Engineering.
The main purpose of the drones will be to deliver vaccination supplies to health centres.
“Since access to electricity even by health centres is low, storing vaccines in suitable environments has been unsustainable. Drones will be used to transport vaccines from proper storage areas to remote health centers,” Amir said.
The ministry has distributed 13,000 refrigerators to health centres to support medical storage capabilities. The drones are equipped with small refrigerator containers to safely deliver the medical supplies.
But there are fundamental issues to be considered before going through with the project, according to Yihenew.
“The drones should be supported by efficient technologically and advanced management systems,” Yihenew argues. “Besides, the aeronautic feasibility should be supported by aviation and topographical studies.”
He also believes that cost and the security systems should be considered while piloting the project.
“Drones are vulnerable and easy to hack. So the ministry should work on security by developing a local knowledge and workforce,” Yehenew suggested.
Drone companies such as Zipline deliver medical supplies to remote areas with rough terrains. An example of the successful use of this technology is in Rwanda, which took the initiative to launch the drone delivery system at the national level in 2016.
Using the drone system, the Rwandan government plans to deliver medical supplies within half an hour’s distance of any citizen in the country. A third of the deliveries that Zipline has made in Rwanda have been emergency deliveries of blood for women after childbirth or for victims of accidents.
“If we choose Zipline, the company will sign a two- to four-year agreement to manage the delivery system and to transfer the know-how to nationals,” Amin told Fortune. “It will also be a tripartite agreement, as it will include the Ministry of Science and Technology in the technical lead role.”
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