On the remote island of Erromango, in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, a one-month old child was given vaccines for hepatitis and tuberculosis via drone delivery. Not only is this unique because of the delivery method, but more than 20 percent of children under age five miss their vaccinations in Vanuatu because of the difficulty in reaching its remote villages, many of which are only accessible by banana boats. This is of course not the first vaccine to be delivered by drone, but it was the first in Vanuatu and will be the only country in the world to make its childhood vaccine program officially drone-dependent. This program is supported by UNICEF, the Australian government, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The program will initially serve three islands (of the 83 volcanic islands that make up Vanuatu), with hopes of expanding to many more.
This is the first commercial contract for routine childhood vaccines. The drone deliveries will be conducted by Swoop Aero, an Australian start-up company, which will only be paid for shipments that arrive safely and securely. Swoop Aero’s drones demonstrated that they could fly 30 miles over islands, land within a 6-foot target circle, and hold five pounds of vaccine, ice packs and a temperature monitor to ensure that the vial stays cold during the flight. Additionally, these drones can maintain 500 feet of altitude in a hot, tropical climate and can handle rain and 30-mile per hour wind gusts. Further, because the drone can be piloted from anywhere, it can fly even if local cell networks go down, which is a frequent occurrence.
Sheldon Yett, UNICEF’s Pacific Islands representative, said that Vanuatu is the “perfect environment for this” because the population is small, widely spread-out, the government is enthusiastic and there are “no issues with crowded skies.” This is another example of how drones are being used to provide health care and medical supplies to hard-to-reach populations around the world.