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Cold-Chain Drug Delivery Tested Via Drone

Medical drone

Medical drone illustration (Volans-i Inc.)

10 July 2019. A group of companies and organizations designed and tested a long-distance drone capable of delivering drugs needing constant cold temperatures. The consortium led by the humanitarian organization Direct Relief included participation from drone maker and delivery company Volans-i Inc., drug maker Merck, temperature-controlled packaging company SoftBox, and network company AT&T.

The project team is seeking better ways to deliver drugs, particularly vaccines, needing continuous refrigeration from manufacture through administration to the patient — the so-called cold chain — in difficult conditions. The optimum temperature for many therapies and vaccines is between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius, or 35 to 46 Fahrenheit, which must be maintained until given to recipients. And the controlled temperature must be maintained throughout the supply chain or put the sensitive drug or vaccine cargoes at risk of spoilage.

Cold-chain delivery is particularly difficult in remote regions or disaster areas, where roads are cut off or communities are isolated. “Experience and research consistently show,” says Andrew Schroeder, director of research and analysis at Direct Relief in Santa Barbara, California, in a joint statement, “that those most at risk in disasters live in communities which are likely to be cut off from essential health care due to disruption of transportation and communications. Drone delivery is one of the most promising answers to this problem.”

The team earlier tested drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, over shorter distances and within sight of the testing crew in Switzerland and Puerto Rico. In this test, an electric-powered autonomous drone made by Volans-i, in San Francisco, successfully delivered a simulated cold-chain drug package between islands in the Bahamas, crossing open water, and well beyond the line of sight of the dispatch team.

The project team says they maintained temperatures as low as -70 degrees C during the entire flight, a temperature required for some drugs. The cargo package was designed by cold-chain packaging systems maker Softbox in Long Crendon, U.K. The payloads were contained in a Skypod, a thermally-insulated package designed for drones, made by Softbox, and monitored continuously during the flight by a system connected via the cloud through AT&T. The Skypod, says Softbox, has sensors connected with AT&T’s Internet-of-things devices to the cloud.

The project team next plans to extend the tests to Latin America and Africa. “More remains to be done to operationalize medical cargo drones in emergencies,” notes Schroeder. “But successful tests like this one demonstrate that remarkable new humanitarian capabilities are emerging quickly.”

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