Right now, people often associate the use of drones with warfare. But in the future they could serve humanitarian purposes, such as delivering aid to people in developing countries.
For example, the pilotless flying machines might offer a cheaper and better way to deliver vaccines. And that could potentially boost vaccination rates in areas that can be difficult to reach now, a new study suggests.
Using a computer model, researchers concluded that sending drones to deliver vaccines in low- and middle-income countries would be cheaper and quicker than by land-based vehicles. Cars and trucks are limited by road conditions and have high fuel and maintenance costs, the researchers said.
"Many low- and middle-income countries are struggling to get lifesaving vaccines to people to keep them from getting sick or dying from preventable diseases," said senior study author Dr Bruce Lee. He is director of operations research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's International Vaccine Access Center.
"You make all these vaccines but they're of no value if we don't get them to the people who need them. So there is an urgent need to find new, cost-effective ways to do this," he explained in a news release.
Lee said in many locations, vehicles used to move vaccines aren't always available or reliable.
"Assuming that drones are reliable, are capable of making the necessary trips and have properly trained operators, they could be a less expensive means of transporting vaccines, especially in remote areas. They could be particularly valuable when there is more demand for certain vaccines than anticipated and immunization locations must place urgent orders," Lee said.
Currently, drones are being tested for medical supply deliveries in rural Virginia, Bhutan and Papua New Guinea. UNICEF is testing drones to transport lab samples in Malawi. Efforts are underway to use drones to transport blood and essential medications in Tanzania, the researchers noted.
The study was published June 20 in the journal Vaccine.