Delivery drones could be reality for SA’s health sector

Drone and robotics knowledge hub Flying Labs envisions a future where cargo drones will be used locally for the delivery of a wide range of medical products, particularly in the remote parts of SA.

This is the word from Dr Heidi Sampang, paediatrician and MD of the Philippines Flying Labs, speaking this week on the side-lines of the second Global AI Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Flying Labs is a network of innovation hubs set up across the globe to collaborate with community partners in the humanitarian, health and environment sectors. The aim is to strengthen local-level capacity and tech expertise in drones, robotics, data and artificial intelligence for positive social change.

This is delivered through professional training offered by Flying Labs, in collaboration with partners to governments, industry and not-for-profit organisations.

Flying Labs hubs are present in over 30 countries across the globe. The South Africa Flying Labs launched last June, with a vision to help expedite SA’s drone regulations and create more jobs in the sector.

Discussing the importance of using emerging technologies for social change, Dr Sampang pointed out that the use of cargo drones by Philippines Flying Labs could be a case study for SA.

Cargo drones are unmanned aircraft, capable of carrying loads of up to 100kg, usually in mountainous and remote areas that are difficult to access – delivered to the destination in an environmentally-friendly manner.

“While drone tech for delivery services is a relatively new space for us in the Philippines, at the moment we deliver vaccines, medical equipment, gloves and other products using drones,” she noted.

“The reason we use drone tech for delivery services in various parts of the globe is because of the limitation of transport infrastructure, and in South Africa and other parts of Africa, we see lots of remote areas where transportation cannot reach. There is definitely big potential for drones to deliver a variety of medical supplies in SA. Using drones works out cheaper than other modes of transportation and it is often quicker.”

SA’s small drones market is seeing fast growth, and is estimated to reach $134.5 million by 2025, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 22.35% from 2020 to 2025, according to research firm Industry ARC.

Although SA has seen drone popularity increase in recent years, drone use has been mainly focused on agriculture and construction, as well as hobby pursuits.

SA’s first blood delivery drone service was introduced in 2019 by the South African National Blood Service.

In other parts of the continent, Rwanda and Kenya, for example, drones have been used over the last few years to deliver blood and medical supplies to doctors in rural areas.

In an effort to train South African youth and start-ups in drone skills, South Africa Flying Labs and partners host regular workshops and training programmes.

During the workshop, attendees are shown all types of drones (fixed wing, multi-router, virtual take-off and landing). There are also discussions on the legislation around the safety, different usability, career options and business opportunities in the robotics industry.

According to Dr Sampang, the use of cargo drones would be impossible in SA without the necessary skills required to fly a drone.

“Drone pilots need to know how to comfortably direct a drone; they need to understand how the tech works and what to do when the drone reaches areas where there is no signal. In Philippines, for example, the drones go even beyond the line-of-sight and the signal disappears in the middle of the ocean.

“This means drones have to rely on the skills of the pilot to safely reach their destination through manual control. So the focus now in SA should be on providing good quality skills training programmes,” she concluded.

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