In a potentially significant step forward in biopharmaceutical supply chain logistics, a collaboration between AT&T, Direct Relief, MSD and Softbox is testing the potential of drones to deliver temperature-dependent medicines and vaccines to remote locations, most recently flying over open waters while using temperature-stabilizing technology.


The Bahamas test proves the possibility of transporting heat-sensitive medicines over open waters

The World Bank estimates that more than three billion people around the world live in rural or remote areas. Not only is it difficult for the people in these regions to access medical care on a regular basis, but in times of crisis and disaster, these are the communities most likely to be cut off from vital services and suffer from severe health crises. 


The logistics of transporting medications and vaccines into these areas is complicated by temperature sensitivity, although drug companies are attempting to remedy the issue by making them able to withstand ambient temperatures. Countries at the forefront of this technology include Switzerland, where, in 2017, Swiss Post tested autonomous intra-city flights to transport blood between hospitals, and UPS Europe used drones to deliver blood products to transfusion centres in Rwanda.


More recently, an inter-industry coalition has been set up to test the limits of medicine delivery by drone. The companies involved are American pharmaceutical giant MSD, drone manufacturer Volans-i, temperature-controlled packaging systems specialist SoftBox, telecoms behemoth AT&T and disaster relief charity Direct Relief. Beginning in 2017, MSD has provided funding, medicines and logistical consulting, Volans-i designs and controls the drones, SoftBox provides the temperature-controlled packaging, AT&T provides tracking technology, and Direct Relief coordinates the group’s efforts and secures the participation of the recipient centres. The group’s first mission was piloting a test of emergency medical supply delivery to Puerto Rico, including remote mountain villages that were severely impacted and cut off by Hurricane Maria in 2017. 


The same team recently initiated an over-sea mission to the Bahamas, the first over-sea drone delivery. While flying between the islands, the unmanned vehicle remained out of the sight of its operator, but cloud-based technology provided tracking and cold-chain delivery technology maintained a steady temperature of minus 70 degrees Celsius. The Bahamas test proves the possibility of transporting heat-sensitive medicines over open waters, and further testing is planned to be undertaken in remote parts of Africa and Latin America. The main challenge will be dealing with regulatory requirements in each country as well as Federal Aviation Administration approval. Despite the logistical challenges that drone delivery still faces, it has the potential to be a fundamental step toward making life-saving medicines more accessible in all parts of the world.