Wednesday, 11 November 2020

Drones delivering Covid-19 Vaccines

Delivering Covid-19 Vaccines by Drone

Drone manufacturers, distribution companies, and investors are getting pretty excited about how drones can help roll out COVID-19 vaccines to remote areas. Drones can play an important role in vaccine distribution but many hurdles have yet to be overcome. Factors such as restrictive regulations, drone range, battery life, and payload capability.  

This article explores the challenges ahead. 

Mission Impossible?

With 7,824,507, 900 people and counting on the planet, rolling out a vaccine for everyone might take some time. 260,000 are born every day. Check out the world population site below to understand the task ahead.

Logistical nightmare

Not only do we quickly need to distribute Covid-19 vaccines to everyone on the planet, but we also need to distribute them in cold storage - AstraZeneca has suggested their vaccine would need the regular cold chain between 2C and 8C. The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine would need ultra-cold chain - storage at -80C before being distributed. 

The WHO, UNICEF and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MFS / Doctors Without Borders), already have effective vaccination programmes in place around the world with the so called "cold chain" facilities - cooler trucks and solar fridges to keep vaccines at the right temperature as they travel from factory to field. However, many countries lack facilities - Burkina Faso in central Africa is already short of about 1000 clinical fridges. Unicef aimed to have 65,000 solar-powered cold fridges installed in low-income countries by the end of 2021.

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock spoke of the "mammoth logistical operation" of transporting the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine from its point of manufacture to the arm of the patient. That's because it cannot be removed from a temperature of -70C (-94F) more than four times.

And that temperature is much lower than what the average home freezer can reach. Most other vaccines do not require anywhere near such low storage temperatures, so there is not a widespread infrastructure already in place. In its own disclosure notice, Pfizer acknowledges there are "challenges related to our vaccine candidate's ultra-low temperature formulation and attendant storage, distribution and administration requirements".

How will Covid-19 vaccines travel?

Pfizer has a plan. The vaccine will be distributed from its own centres in the US, Germany and Belgium. It will need to travel both on land and by air, face potential storage in distribution centres in between stages and the final hurdle will be local delivery to clinics, surgeries, pharmacies, hospitals - anywhere the vaccine will be administered.

As revealed by the Wall Street Journal, Pfizer has developed a special transport  reuseable box the size of a suitcase, packed with dry ice and installed with GPS trackers, which can keep up to 5,000 doses of the vaccine at the right temperature for 10 days, as long as it remains unopened. 

How heavy will the special transport boxes with 5,000 doses weigh? What quantity of doses will drones be able to carry, and over what distances, and time periods, according to battery life technology?

Lift it and shift it

Drones, UAV or autonomous aircraft?

Windracers have been delivering medicines and health equipment to offshore islands in the UK.  -  Their UAV is specifically designed for aid delivery in crisis countries. They aim to carry 100 kgs of aid, over 1,000 km range.

So how will we vaccinate everyone from Coronavirus?

Getting vaccines to people in third world countries will create great challenges, to deliver medicines over great distances, in sparsely populated areas. Not only are roads very difficult to navigate, in many areas of the world, conflicts and terrorists can disrupt aid distribution. In 2014, according to the World health Organisation, the number of Polio infected children had already reached 115 in Pakistan due to the  Pakistani Taliban’s propaganda campaign against receiving polio vaccinations. Will the Taliban allow Covid-19 vaccinations to take place?

Drone companies such as Zipline are already doing great work in Africa, in Rwanda, Ghana, Tanzania, also in India and The Philippines. In the US, Zipline is establishing a site in Reno, Nevada to service seven hospitals to help with medical logistics in rural areas.  The drone cruises at a speed of 101 km/h (63 mph), ensuring deliveries are within 45 minutes, and can carry up to 1.75 kilograms (3.9 lb) of cargo. see 

Will every country get vaccines?

COVAX: Ensuring global equal access to COVID-19 vaccines.

COVAX has been created to maximise our chances of successfully developing COVID-19 vaccines and manufacture them in the quantities needed to end this crisis, and help to distribute the vaccines to poorer countries. See video below.


Autonomous planes

Given the magnitude of the distribution problem, will drones have sufficient payload lifting capacity to deliver vaccines that need to be transported in special cold conditions? Will drones have sufficient battery power for adequate range? 

Reliable Robotics

Aviation firm Reliable Robotics run by former Tesla and SpaceX engineers is developing self-flying planes and just taught a cargo plane how to land on its own. A Cessna 172 piston aircraft was first used to prove the concept viable with an entirely autonomous gate-to-gate flight performed in 2019. 

Payload versus pilot

If the typical pilot weighs 150 pounds in weight, cutting out the pilot in an autonomous flight will increase the payload and number of vaccines that the aeroplane can carry. 

Which distribution companies are investing in drone technology?

Large distribution companies such as UPS, Amazon, Walmart, Tesco are conducting trials to deliver food and medicines by drone. 

UPS Flight Forward, CVS To Launch Residential Drone Delivery Service In Florida Retirement Community To Assist In Coronavirus Response. 

Amazon Prime Air is a service that will deliver packages up to five pounds in 30 minutes or less using small drones. They have established Prime Air development centres in the United States, the United Kingdom, Austria, France and Israel, and are testing vehicles in multiple international locations. 

Walmart admit that that it will be some time before we see millions of packages delivered via drone. They admit that drone delivery still feels like a bit of science fiction, but they are a point where they are learning more and more about the technology that is available and how it can be used it to make customers’ lives easier. 

Will regulators hinder drone technology?

Regulators are perhaps taking a more positive view of drone technology, but sadly cannot keep up with product developments. We may have the technology, but regulators are restricting the use of drones. We accept the need for having regulations in place to ensure safe drone operations, but we also need to distribute vaccines to 7.8 billion people.

BVLOS Beyond Visual Line of Sight Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) is the most talked about thing in the drone industry. Countries around the world are amending their drone policies so that they can allow unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly Beyond Visual Line of Sight for maximum efficiency. Unlike VLOS flights, which are operated within the pilot’s line of sight, BVLOS flights are flown beyond the visual range. BVLOS capabilities enable a drone to cover far greater distances. While BVLOS flight is already legal in some countries with certain restrictions, it is not yet allowed in the United States without a hard-to-get waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). To date, more than 1200 BVLOS waiver applications have been submitted by commercial drone operators. Of these, 99% have failed to earn a permit.

Which drone manufacturers have solutions to offer?

Drone technology supports rapid and flexible delivery of temperature-sensitive medicines. But regulations, flight time, payload, battery life, special cold storage requirements are all factors and restrictions to overcome. 


Wing claim to have developed an air delivery service that’s faster, safer, and more ecologically friendly than what’s possible today on the ground. 


Flytrex is working diligently to push innovation and the use of drone delivery technology to make a positive impact globally. They are taking advantage of their technology to rapidly deliver essential goods, and are partnering with a growing number of towns and counties world-wide to deploy sterilized drone-based stations and offer delivery of essentials.


In April 2020, the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted Flirtey a critical patent for the safe and precise drone delivery of packages.   


Matternet's urban drone logistics platform to be deployed in Tokyo and utilized to assess drone delivery opportunities in Japan.


Volansi has launched a drone delivery program to deliver medicines in rural North Carolina. Volansi’s drone system to enable the delivery of routine medicines from Merck manufacturing facility to patients at Vidant Healthplex-Wilson as the first phase of a project to learn about drone technology’s use in the healthcare supply chain.

Drone Delivery Canada

Drone Delivery Canada view Drone delivery as a disruptive technology.  Drones offer a more cost-effective way to deliver cargo by minimising shipping times and reducing operational and overhead costs. 

Chinese e-commerce giant has completed its first delivery by drone to a village near Baiyang Lake in Northern China’s Hebei province.

China’s largest private courier, SF Express, used drones to transport 70 kgs of medical supplies to Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital in China’s Hubei province.

In Summary

Drones need less regulations, faster regulator response, heavier payload capability, better power technology for longer range.