Swoop Aero remotely piloting drones with critical medical supplies for African villages

Speeding up the delivery of vaccines by hours, if not days.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor
Image: Supplied/Swoop Aero

Usually, when Eric Peck is working, he's not looking out onto the streets of Melbourne. Rather, the CEO of drone logistics company Swoop Aero is somewhere in South Africa -- or like in January, at a national park in Malawi, staring out at wild hippopotami and elephants.

But due to recent repatriate orders by the Australian government in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, Peck and his team have returned home.

However, that hasn't stopped Swoop Aero from operating. The fleet of drones that Peck, a former airforce pilot turned Deloitte consultant, and co-founder and CTO Josh Tepper developed to provide those in regional or remote areas access to healthcare were intentionally designed to be piloted remotely.

"What we did was built a system that segregated the need for a person piloting the drone to be anywhere near the aircraft to the point the system we've developed could quite literally mean you can have a drone at the north pole and the pilot at the south pole, and it makes no difference if the pilot was standing next to the aircraft," he told ZDNet.

"We've done this by developing our own in-house control system, leveraging high bandwidth, low-cost satellite links … Basically, if we've got a laptop or iPad and a box that allows [you] to connect to the internet anywhere in the world via satellite, we can control the aircraft."

Each Swoop Aero drone is made from a combination of 3D-printed carbon fibre shell, commercial off-the-shelf components, the company's own propriety technology, and is powered using solar energy.

Swoop Aero currently operates in Malawi in partnership with USAID Global Health Supply Chain, UK Aid, and UNICEF, providing medical supplies including vaccines for malaria and tuberculosis, penicillin, anti-malarial and anti-venom medications, and HIV/AIDS testing kits from healthcare centres to remote villages. On the return trip, the drones are also often carrying tests for tuberculosis and other blood samples.

Similar services have also been provided in the Dominican Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mozambique.

"We're working with the [Malawi] College of Medicine and the healthcare system to improve transportation of supplies," Peck said.

"We work very closely with the government. It's the same with our work in DRC; we work very closely in partnership with the government and the health system over there. The same again in Mozambique. Although the contracts are with or alongside the NGOs, the core customer we're serving is the government."

Image: Supplied/Swoop Aero

Prior to winning these contracts, Swoop Aero started delivering vaccines via drones in Vanuatu in December 2018 after the company won its first commercial with the Vanuatu government.

"We had a number of aircraft with us on the island and developed this system alongside the healthcare staff where we started doing scheduled deliveries of vaccines, so we knew what we had to carry every day," Peck said.

"What would happen was the healthcare staff would walk down with a box and say it's going to this particular village and it's got this in it, and we'd put it in the aircraft, pre-program the route, basically press a button on the drone itself, it takes off autonomously and flies to its destination, lands in the village autonomously, healthcare staff offload the vaccines, and they can put lab samples or spare vaccines back in, press a button to initiate the automatic take-off and it flies back … We quickly realised that although it was only a 20-minute flight across the island for us, it was a two-day walk to go across the top of the volcano, or to get to some of the villages it was five hours on a boat."

In addition to the scheduled deliveries, Swoop Aero became what Peck referred to as an "on-demand" service for healthcare staff.

"They told us they wanted to use it for other things like help pay the staff, otherwise healthcare staff would have to walk to the hospital and it would take them two days -- one day to walk there and a day to walk back," he said.

"Can we distribute their pay with the drones, and we said, 'Yeah, we can actually can'. Can we do pharmaceutical deliveries? There's one centre on the island has that penicillin but the other has none, so can we fly the drone over there? It became this on-demand network.

"The peak use case of that was when a mum had a newborn baby that needed a drug called oxytocin. The number one cause of death for women in Vanuatu is post-birth complications, so her choice was eight hours on a boat to get to the hospital to get this drug -- and it needs to be administered within two hours -- or they call up and we're there 30 minutes later in the aircraft.

"That's the pinnacle of that on-demand service, and we've replicated that with a rabies vaccine in Malawi and high-strength antibiotics getting flown to really sick people."

Image: Supplied/Swoop Aero

Peck is hopeful the company's drones will also soon be used to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic in the areas that the Swoop Aero currently services.

"One of the key reasons we're keen to remain operating in southern Malawi is because as the country gets locked down, our ability to transfer between villages and regions and roll out COVID-19 testing kits will enable the healthcare workers to get those kits without the need for cars and people transiting between the villages, and creating higher infection risks. That's been our core driver about why we've stayed there," he said.

"We're still operating, it's all business as usual from our perspective. When -- and it will be needed at some point in the next couple of weeks -- you need testing kits taken out of these hospitals, we'll be there to support them and make sure it can happen in the safest way possible for the communities."

He estimates within the next six weeks, Swoop Aero will also recommence operations in Mozambique and DRC to support on-ground staff with COVID-19 healthcare services.

Beyond the pandemic, Peck wants to see the company provide healthcare to rural and remote parts of Indonesia and Australia, especially in Indigenous communities.

The Melbourne-based startup is backed by investors including Right Click Capital, Tempus Partners, and Blackbird Ventures.

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