When Vice President Dr. Mahamudu Bawumia launched the government’s audacious medical drone service to deliver emergency medical service to remote areas in Ghana, it marked the beginning of an innovation in medical delivery in the country.
At the time, only Rwanda had signed up with Zipline, the American company that operates the drones and critics, mostly opposition elements, lashed the government’s initiative as a misplaced and a waste of money.
The drone service was to provide blood and life-saving medications to 2,000 health facilities across the nation in a project described by Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo as the “largest drone delivery network on the planet.”
Despite the prospect of the drone service to serve an estimated 12 million people in remote areas, the concept was viciously criticised, and the main advocate of the initiative, Vice President Bawumia, was targeted by critics of the drone service.
However, a little over a year after the service was launched, it has indeed become the biggest drone service in the world, delivering more than its set target in emergencies in remote areas, which vehicles can’t access on time during emergency situations.
Just 13 months after the drone service was launched, a fascinating video on the operations of Ghana’s medical drones has provided an insight into its operations and its remarkable success which has earned the service international plaudits.
With two centres in Omenako in the Eastern Region and Mampong in the Ashanti Region, as well as two centres (in the north and Western region) nearing full capacity, each drones centre is able to operate over 80 flights per day nationwide.
According to Bright Boamah, an engineer of the drone service, the drone flights deliver up to 2000 different vials to deprived communities in emergency situations per day.
Some of the most in-demand drugs the drone service delivers daily are anti-snake venom vials.
Samuel Akuffo, a Zipline Ghana official, reveals they send out 100s of different vials, which are kept in the well-secured storeroom, every day to salvage emergency situations across the country
“We send more than 100 different vials, measles and rubbels vaccines, BCG; these are the vaccines that are usually used in the childhood immunization. But aside these, we deliver anti-snake venom as well,” Samuel Akufo explained.
How the drones work
The drone, or if you like, the miniature plane, is set up and launched from the drone centre to its intended delivery destination.
Interestingly, the drone flight doesn’t taxi like a normal flight before takeoff, neither does it land like a plane before delivering the vials.
Engineers set up the drones by fixing the battery, the wings and its spinning motor. The drone is then loaded with vials of drugs before it takes off about 1500 feet up in the sky to its intended destination.
According to Bright Boamah, the drone flights are programmed to self deliver the drugs by lowering itself and dropping the vials at a health facility and then making a swift return to the Drone Centres through same programming.
“It goes around and then comes back. Everything is programmed; it is like an AI system,”
So far, since last year, none of the drones has crushed. All scheduled flights have delivered drugs successfully, and as the two other drone centres get set to start operations, the Ghana Drone Service is expected to even deliver more vials to salvage hundreds of emergency situations nationwide.
Role of Drones in Ghana’s COVID-19 response
The significance of Ghana’s Drone Service to contemporary healthcare delivery has been underlined during the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic.
As a smart move, the government resorted to the use of the medical drones to deliver samples from remote communities for COVID-19 testing in the cities.
This has significantly aided Ghana in swiftly administering tests in few days, in situations which would have ordinarily required weeks.
The fact that Ghana’s innovative use of drones in its COVID-19 response strategy has been hailed as the first by any country by the renowned TIME magazine, is a further testament to the significant impact the drone service has had on healthcare delivery since it was launched a year ago.
Adoption by US and other countries
What is even more significant is the adoption of Ghana’s innovative use of drones to in its COVID-19 response by the US.
Last month, when the TIME magazine hailed Ghana as the first country to use drone service in COVID-19 operationd, it also reported how the United States was considering emulating Ghana’s example.
And the BBC reported last week that indeed the United States Aviation Authority had granted licence for the use of drone to deliver samples for COVID-19 operations, as in parts of Britain and Ireland.
At the time of launching the medical drone service, Vice President Bawumia spoke passionately about how the drone medical delivery service represented a major step towards giving everyone in the country universal access to life-saving medicines. He also envisaged a significant turnaround in healthcare delivery in Ghana where would die due to lack of access to medicine in emergency situations.
Just over a year on, an insight into the operations of the Zipline Drone Service, coupled with its effective interventions nationwide, have proved the Akufo-Addo government’s investment in the drones one that is worthy of commendation.