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[ACCRA] Poor roads and congestion can cause fatal delays when taking samples from under-equipped regional clinics to central laboratories in many West African countries.

Unmanned drones offer a tantalising solution to the problem, providing emission-free transport as they soar over potholed roads and traffic jams.

Yet in order for the sums to add up, range and durability are critical, according to a research paper published in the January issue of the Lancet Global Health.

“Our study was designed to point out the key factors in considering and selecting drones, should countries decide to use them,” says Walter O. Ochieng, lead author of the study and a health economist at the
US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study published estimates of the cost-effectiveness of theoretically using drones for routine and emergency transport of laboratory samples during the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic in Liberia.

“Drones should not be seen as substitutes to existing transport systems but rather as a complement to improve transport options that address barriers.”

Walter Ochieng, US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention

According to the findings, under routine conditions, the average cost for a sample transported by motorcycles was 65 US cents, whereas that for short-range drones would be 82 US cents.

However, the difference widened by more than half in the emergency scenario, when geographical coverage became a key consideration.

Researchers considered variables such as lifespan, maintenance, flying range, number of base stations and personnel costs to predict the cost-effectiveness of using drones and motorcycles.

They found the likelihood of drones being more cost-effective increased with flying ranges, life spans over 1,000 hours and purchase prices being less than US$15,000.

“Drones should not be seen as substitutes to existing transport systems, but rather as a complement to improve transport options that address barriers to effective transport delivery and cost,” explains Ochieng.

“As such, our economic model could be adapted to identify the local scenarios where the drone-based transport system might provide more efficient and cost-effective laboratory specimen transport mechanisms, and ultimately lead to better detection and response times in identifying and addressing public health events.”

Michael Scheibenreif, a project lead at the Africa Drones and Data Academy in Malawi, tells SciDev.Net that drones have the potential to connect remote areas in Africa to health supplies relatively quickly compared to using land transportation.

Scheibenreif says that poor road networks in villages hamper efficient healthcare delivery village clinics.

“Connecting these clinics by drone at least every other week would give the nurse more time to take care of their patients,” he says. But Scheibenreif adds that many studies about the use of drones in public health either claim they are cheaper or expensive.

“All of these studies share one thing: they are theoretical models based on certain assumptions. Up to date, we miss the real life data to do a comparison based on actual drone operations,” he explains.

“Drones should therefore always to be understood as a trigger for more innovation in a much larger healthcare system.”

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.


Walter O. Ochieng and others Uncrewed aircraft systems versus motorcycles to deliver laboratory samples in west Africa: a comparative economic study (Lancet Global Health, January 2020)