Drones are being successfully deployed to support medical and humanitarian projects across Africa, but for a greater, more sustainable impact, they will need to be fully integrated into supply chains within an enabling regulatory environment, according to panellists who spoke during a webinar on drones for improving healthcare supply chains, hosted by Logistics Update Africa.
The webinar was held in partnership with STAT Times, a strategic partner to event organiser Messe Muenchen South Africa, organisers of the upcoming Air Cargo Africa 2021 event.
Experts from drone companies, humanitarian organisations and regulators noted that drone development had been significant in recent years, with drones proving their value in numerous projects across the continent.
However, the panellists also highlighted that regulatory bodies had been slower to develop regulations flexible enough to keep pace with this fast-changing technology. Questions also remained about ways to assess the supply chain to determine where and how drones should be deployed, and the need to weigh up the profitability and sustainability of drone services against the need to support remote communities with life-saving medicines.
STAT Times moderator Reji John said drones have been an important topic of discussion for some time among regulators, nongovernmental organisations and industry stakeholders working in last-mile logistics in African healthcare.
“We see significant acceleration of drones being used for healthcare and humanitarian support, including the potential for vaccine distribution, if and when a Covid-19 vaccine becomes available.”
Humanitarian and developmental aid agency United Nations International Children’s Fund drone specialist Tautvdas Juskauskas noted that integrating drones into the supply chain was a complex process, requiring the involvement and collaboration of many stakeholders, and that regulations have to catch up.
He also emphasised that while drones could play an important role in last-mile logistics, it was important to carefully analyse the supply chain to determine where supply chain bottlenecks occurred.
Juskauskas added that before investing in drone delivery, a comprehensive needs and demands assessment should be undertaken to determine where bottlenecks exist.
In terms of regulations and keeping ahead of technological advances, Kenya Civil Aviation Authority national continuous monitoring coordinator chief Lawrence Amukono said the country had recently accepted its Unmanned Aircraft Systems regulations after lengthy assessment and consultation. He noted that because drone technologies and applications were still evolving, the Kenyan regulators had sought to be flexible enough to allow progress, while still mitigating risk to other air space users and third parties on the ground.
“We realised drone operations are not like manned aviation operations, which have mature systems known to everyone, so you can be more prescriptive. We have come up with regulations that are fairly flexible, but we do require sufficient demonstration of measures in place to mitigate risk, the integrity of the technology and systems, and the procedures and processes in place,” noted Amukono.
However, while countries such as Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Kenya were now expanding projects using drones to deliver medical and humanitarian aid, the panellists noted that many other regions had been slow to create an enabling environment for drone use.
Amukono said organisations in Africa were now looking to also use drones to address a number of issues while reducing human-to-human contact. “We also see interest in using drones to patrol and enforce movement restrictions in some countries.”
Further, he said that countries that do not have fully fledged drone regulations may be allowing these projects on an exceptional basis while air traffic is currently reduced as a result of limited air travel during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This could be beneficial as many bans on drones may have been based on lack of knowledge and this gives them an opportunity to discover the application of drones.”