Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to Deliver Medical and Emergency Supplies to Remote Areas

Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to Deliver Medical and Emergency Supplies to Remote Areas

Isaac Levi Henderson (Massey University, New Zealand), Savern L. Reweti (Massey University, New Zealand) and Robyn Kamira (Incredible Skies Ltd, New Zealand)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7900-7.ch006


This chapter examines the role of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the delivery of medical and emergency supplies to remote areas. It outlines a number of potential considerations for operators wishing to use UAVs to deliver medical and emergency supplies to remote areas. These considerations address a number of practicalities in terms of the organisation that is wishing to conduct such operations, the operations themselves, and the technology that is used for such operations. These considerations primarily stem from the nature of the international regulatory framework for unmanned aircraft operations and the peculiarities of using a UAV to deliver medical and emergency supplies. The chapter will outline some of the practicalities that have been worked through or are being worked through during a project to deliver medical and emergency supplies in Northland, New Zealand. This will provide readers with examples of some of the real-world considerations that operators face as well as outline the positive community impact that such operations can provide.
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Thiels, Aho, Zietlow, and Jenkins (2015) argue that the speed and ability to travel over closed roads and terrain make UAVs ideal candidates for transporting medical supplies, especially given that this can likely be done at a lower cost than conventional medical transport. According to the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (2016), 60% of humanitarian workers favour the use of UAVs in humanitarian work, with 36% of humanitarian workers considering the use of UAVs for delivery to be of the most interest. Indeed, there have been many trials of the use of UAVs to deliver medical and emergency supplies to remote areas, such as collecting the sputum samples of patients with suspected tuberculosis from remote parts of Papua New Guinea (Médecins Sans Frontières, 2014) and reducing waiting times for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) testing in infants in Malawi (UNICEF, 2016). Unfortunately, the academic literature on the use of UAVs to deliver medical and emergency supplies is somewhat limited, especially in terms of the practicalities that must be worked through for such an operation to take place. Accordingly, this chapter provides a foundation for practitioners and researchers by working through some of these practicalities.

Due to the lack of international standardisation and the current global regulatory environment for UAV operations, a number of practicalities result from compliance issues with the use of UAVs to deliver medical and emergency supplies (Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, 2016; Thiels et al., 2015). Article 8 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation states that any aircraft capable of being flown without a pilot shall not be flown over a State without a pilot unless special authorisation has been given by that State (CASA, 2017). The complicating factor to this is that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is still in the process of creating a global regulatory framework for unmanned aircraft operations. Currently, there are two major groups within ICAO working towards this end. First, there is the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Advisory Group (UAS-AG), who support the Secretariat in the development of guidance material and are currently working on a common global framework for and core boundaries of unmanned aircraft system traffic management, known as UTM (ICAO, 2018b). Second, there is the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Panel (RPASP) who are developing ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs), procedures and guidance material for unmanned aircraft so that they can be integrated within the broader aviation system (ICAO, 2018a). While this work is ongoing, ICAO signatory states are without sufficient international standards to use for creating local regulatory requirements. In terms of using UAVs to deliver emergency and medical supplies, this creates the issue of a lack of standardisation across states and the issue of individual states having regulatory authorities who may be reluctant to approve or certificate such operations because they don’t fit well within the current regulatory framework (i.e., a framework oriented towards manned aircraft operations). This chapter outlines a number of common considerations that arise due to compliance issues based upon current and proposed regulations in several countries (see Appendix for a list of countries and regulatory authorities).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Scheduled Maintenance: Regular maintenance activities to ensure that the UAV remains airworthy.

Regulatory Authority: A government agency that is charged regulating the aviation industry by producing rules, issuing licenses and certificates, and auditing certificated aviation organizations for compliance.

Unscheduled Maintenance: Maintenance activities triggered by an event that could not have been foreseen, such as propeller strikes, fires, and hard landings.

Senior Persons: People who hold managerial portfolios that involve oversight for the organization and its operations.

Operator’s Maintenance Manual: Part of the exposition that outlines how the organization will maintain the airworthiness of their aircraft through regular checks, scheduled maintenance, and procedures for managing unscheduled maintenance events.

Life-Limited Parts: Parts that must be replaced at regular intervals (flight hours, flights, calendar time, or other measure) in order to ensure the airworthiness of the UAV.

Exposition: A document that outlines how an organisation is managed and how its operations are conducted. This document is used by regulatory authorities to determine whether an organization should be certificated and is used following certification to audit the organization for compliance.

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