Tag Archives: WHO

What to Know When Using Humanitarian UAVs for Transportation

UAVs can support humanitarian action in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most common and well-documented use-case is data collection. There are several other use-cases, however, such as payload transportation, which I have blogged about herehere and here. I had the opportunity to learn more about the logistics and operations of payload UAVs while advising a well-known public health NGO in Liberia as well as an international organization in Tanzania. This advising led to conversations with some of the leading experts in the UAV-for-transportation space like Google Project WingMatternet and Vayu for example.

UAV payload unit

Below are just some of the questions you’ll want to ask when you’re considering the use of UAVs for the transportation of small payloads. Of course, the UAV may not be the most appropriate technology for the problem you’re looking to solve. So naturally, the very first step is to carry out a comparative cost-benefit analysis with multiple technologies. The map below, kindly shared by Matternet, is from a project they’re working on with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Papua New Guinea.

Credit: Matternet

Why does it take some 4 hours to drive 60km (40 miles) compared to 55 minutes by UAV? The pictures below (also shared by Matternet) speak for themselves.

Credit: Matternet

Credit: Matternet

Credit: Matternet

Any use of UAVs in humanitarian contexts should follow the Code of Conduct proposed by the Humanitarian UAV Network (UAViators), which was recently endorsed by the UN. Some of the (somewhat obvious) questions you’ll want to bear in mind as you carry out your cost-benefit analysis thus include:

  • What is maximum, minimum and the average distance that the UAV needs to fly?
  • How frequently do the UAVs need to make the deliveries?
  • How much mass needs to be moved per given amount of time?
  • What is the mass of individual packages (and can these be split into smaller parcels if need be)?
  • Do the packages contain a mechanism for cold transport or would the UAV need to provide refrigeration (assuming this is needed)?
  • What do the take-off and landing spaces look like? How much area, type of ground, size of trees or other obstacles nearby?
  • What does the typology between the take-off and landing sites look like? Tall trees, mountains, or other obstructions?
  • Regarding batteries, is there easy access to electricity in the areas where the UAVs will be landing?
  • Is there any form of cell phone coverage in the landing areas?
  • What is the overall fixed and variable cost of operating the payload UAVs compared to other solutions?
  • What impact (both positive and negative) will the introduction of the payload UAV have on the local economy?

While the payload weight is relatively small (1kg-2kg) for low-cost UAVs, keep in mind that UAV flights can continue around the clock. As one of my colleagues at the Syria Airlift Project recently noted, “If  one crew could launch a plane every 5 minutes, that would add up to almost 200kg in an eight-hour time period.”


Naturally, Google and Matternet are not the only group out there developing UAVs for payload transportation. Amazon, DHL and others are prototyping the same technology. In addition, many of the teams I met at the recent Drones for Good Challenge in Dubai demo’ed payload solutions. One of the competition’s top 5 finalists was Drone Life from Spain. They flew their quadcopter (pictured above) fully autonomously. What’s special about this particular prototype is not just it’s range (40-50km with 2-3kg payload) but the fact that it also includes a fridge (for vaccines, organs, etc.,) that can be remotely monitored in real-time to ensure the temperature remains within required parameters.

At some point in your planning process, you’ll want to map the landing and take-off sites. The map below (click to enlarge) is the one we recently produced for the Tanzania UAV project (which is still being explored). Naturally, all these payload UAV flights would be pre-programmed and autonomous. If you’d like to learn more about how one programs such flights, check out my short video here.

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 2.06.45 PM

One other point worth keeping in mind is that UAVs need not be independent from existing transportation infrastructure. One team at the recent Drones for Good Challenge in Dubai suggested using public buses as take-off and landing points for UAVs. A university in the US is actually exploring this same use case, extending the reach of delivery trucks by using UAVs.

Of course, there are a host of issues that one needs to consider when operating any kind of UAV for humanitarian purposes. These include regulations, permits, risk assessments and mitigation strategies, fail safe mechanisms, community engagement, data privacy/security, etc. The above is simply meant to highlight some of the basic questions that need to be posed at the outset of the project. Needless to say, the very first question should always be whether the UAV is indeed the most appropriate tool (cost/benefit analysis) for the task at hand. In any case, the above is obviously not an exhaustive list. So I’d very much welcome feedback on what’s missing. Thank you!

WHO Using UAVs to Transport Medical Supplies (Updated)

Update: DHL to deliver medicine via UAV [link]

The World Health Organization (WHO) is experimenting with Matternet’s new quadcopters (one of which is pictured below) to transport medical supplies to remote regions in Bhutan. The country lies in the Himalayas, which makes access to public health particularly challenging for rural communities. Reaching these remote mountain populations in a timely and affordable way is key. This explains why WHO is looking into UAVs.

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 3.44.21 PM

Matternet is “aiming to build a network of low-cost quadcopters to connect the country’s main hospitals with rural communities.” The team “uses small quad- copters that can carry loads of about four pounds across 20 km at a time, to and from pre-designated landing stations. The company is able to track these flights in real-time, and aims to eventually deploy fully-automated landing stations that replace drone batteries, giving them extended range and flight time. The drones it uses typically cost between $2,000-5,000.”


WHO is not the only international humanitarian organization exploring the use of UAVs for the transportation of small payloads. Colleagues at UNICEF and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are actively exploring this use-case as well with the latter in early pilot stages with Matternet in Papua New Guinea.

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 5.46.28 PM

UAVs can also be used in other ways to support public health projects. Take my UAV colleagues in the Philippines who are collaborating with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on a food security problem with obvious linkages to public health. Typhoon Haiyan uprooted millions of coconut trees when it barreled through the country. Many of these trees have since been rotting, which is now leading to a Rhinocerous Beetle infestation that can wipe out the entire coconut industry—a very important source of livelihood for many in the country. Meanwhile, other colleagues in Pakistan are looking into using UAVs “to identify and exterminate dengue larvae” as part of an existing intervention that uses smart phones to promote mosquito mitigation efforts.


See Also:

  • Humanitarian UAV Network: Strategy for 2014-2015 [link]
  • Humanitarians in the Sky: Using UAVs for Disaster Response [link]
  • Crisis Map of UAV Videos for Disaster Response [link]
  • Humanitarian UAV Missions During Balkan Floods [link]
  • “TripAdvisor” for International UAV/Drone Travel [link]
  • UAVs, Community Mapping & Disaster Risk Reduction in Haiti [link]