Can Drones Solve Development Issues?

In June 2017, Vanuatu launched the first drone trial in the Pacific to test the capacity, efficiency and effectiveness of drones to deliver lifesaving vaccines.

The trial will be conducted in three phases and is led by the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Infrastructure & Public Utilities, with the support of the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Using innovative solutions to solve development issues can be difficult for the average ‘man-bush’ to comprehend. Can a flying box delivering vaccines really be the way forward to sustainable development?

Isn’t that a bit too tech-savvy when Vanuatu’s existing technology and telecommunications capacity is questionable?

We talk with Andrew Parker, Chief of UNICEF Vanuatu, about new technologies and how it can potentially change how Vanuatu operates in the future.

How are drones currently used?

Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS), otherwise known as drones, can be used for transport, imagery and a platform for relaying radio or wireless communications in areas that are not currently connected.

The wide application of drones in different areas of development is emerging around the world. For example, there are schools in remote areas in the Amazon Basin that have no connectivity and they are thinking of using drones as a feasible solution.

Is Vanuatu ready for drones? Do we have the capacity?

The difficulty with launching a trial like this is that we see the world as we know it. So we look at it from the angle of – why won’t it work? What stops this from being successful?

We know that civil aviation has limited staffing and limited resources — that’s a fact of today. But if the trial proves that the delivery of health supplies can be done efficiently and in a timely matter, we will potentially be improving the lives of the community and it may also turn out to be a more cost effective operation.

We may find out that the civil aviation problem that we started with – limited staffing and limited resources – can be resolved by increasing their capacity. This may be more cost effective for service delivery rather than invest in infrastructure and transport.

But we still don’t know, as the challenges we face are not linear. First we have to see what the potential the drones have and then go backwards to make it real.

If the drone trial is successful, will it replace jobs?

We are not seeking to replace jobs, we are seeking to compliment instead. Think of the nurse at the aid post level, who doesn’t have the medicines and therefore cannot treat a sick child. She or he will be frustrated, knowing what’s needed but can’t do anything about it.

When you’re talking about the possibility of drones replacing existing jobs, you have to think about how technology compliments our lives not replaces. Just have a look at your mobile phone. In the past, we use to get in a vehicle or walk or get on a bike to schedule a work meeting. Now we don’t even walk to the next desk, we just send an email.

What technology has done has changed the way we interact. Good, bad or indifferent but the new reality is that we have to adjust. Technology is not something you can ignore. You have to get the best out of it and to achieve that in Vanuatu, we are proposing to to take the bulls by the horns. If the cost efficiency shows that it’s a viable competitor to existing distributing systems, then it will be an economic argument that will drive the discussion further.

How are we delivering vaccines to remote communities at the moment?

We have high coverage of vaccines but there are some vaccines that are heat intolerant. We cannot hold them at a health center unless they have a functioning solar system for refrigeration.

In the cases where they can’t store them, we have to go back to those communities with mobile teams and chase down the children who’ve only had ¾ of their vaccinations. We have identified that this is a real problem.

For instance in West Coast Santo, nurses have to go up the hills to the communities and leave the day before on foot. A relay of runners will then carry the vaccines in a cold box the day after. They will overtake the nurses so that when they arrive, the vaccines are ready. Using drones may or may not put the runner out of the job, but it comes down to getting the right product to the right place at the right time.

How can new technologies change the way we operate?

We have struggled to overcome the shortfalls in vaccinations through traditional means. We can’t really get more coverage the way we are going without throwing huge additional resources in terms of personnel through an inefficient process.

It would be advantageous for Vanuatu to become reflective on what the issues that we are seeking technological solutions for.

Through national ownership and government leadership of the trial we are seeking to define the challenge rather than having pre-packaged technological solutions from the outside thrown at Vanuatu.

This article was originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post