The organizations are testing drone flights and the coordinated processes needed to provide medical supplies by drone in a temperature-controlled environment with real-time monitoring. The long-distance deliveries must comply with U.S. and Puerto Rico laws and regulations for prescription drug delivery, including a documented chain of custody; Federal Aviation Administration approval for flight plans; and, for some products, must be consistently refrigerated to ensure the integrity and effectiveness of the medicines.
The technology of the smart boxes allows for temperature-control when delivering products such as some of Merck's vaccines. The non-refrigerated cargo can carry medications for asthma and hypertension for instance.
Researchers estimate that most deaths from Hurricane Maria in September 2017, were caused by loss of access to medicines and health care, not by wind or water. As people were displaced from their homes, health centers lost power for weeks, and travel was extremely difficult. This likely contributed to an increase in deaths from chronic diseases that can be managed under normal conditions.
This week tests were conducted with drones flying in challenging terrain in remote areas impacted during Maria, beyond the line of sight. The drone deliveries extend to remote mountain villages that were cut off from electricity and road access for months after Hurricane Maria, some of them for a time accessible only by helicopter.
In upcoming tests, drones will fly over sea to deliver medicines and vaccines.
In this pilot program, each organization has brought something unique to the table to innovate the way medicines are delivered to people who need them:
- Direct Relief is coordinating the effort, testing how such systems can be deployed in an emergency, and secured the participation of health centers in Puerto Rico.
- Merck conceived of the project and is funding the tests and donating medications for delivery, using its Las Piedras facility as the departure point.
- Softbox makes the small temperature controlled packaging system for transporting cold chain medications - those requiring constant refrigeration.
- AT&T's Internet of Things technology is being used to monitor the temperature and location of Softbox's cold chain boxes.
- Volans-i is providing the long-range delivery drones and is controlling the flights.