There’s a lifesaving buzz in the air in Vanuatu

“The drones are bringing vaccines to stop children from getting sick,” said a fifth grader of Melsisi Primary School, Pentecost Island

Pentecost, one of the 83 south pacific islands that make up the Republic of Vanuatu, is currently home to an exciting project that will save children’s lives. In the village of Melsisi, there is a buzz of activity not just on the ground but in the air, as Wingcopter drones are now being used to deliver payloads with vaccines to 19 villages across the island. The mountainous island of Pentecost still has many traditional villages, many of which are not accessible by car, have limited electricity and few – if any – means of refrigeration.

Local nurses like Dominique Viragos trek through the jungles to deliver lifesaving medicine and vaccines to health facilities. and to conduct mobile clinics across the island. While some facilities are only 20 km away, a single journey usually takes over two hours by car and up to 7 hours when trekking through rough terrain, often hampered by unremitting rain.

For several weeks now however, the nurses no longer have to carry vaccines and other medical supplies anymore. They are now delivered via a safer way to the health facilities and mobile clinics – on demand, and in a matter of minutes.

Dominique manages the distribution of the vaccines and has embraced this new technology with great enthusiasm. Instead of walking for hours like he used to, he can now remain in his home clinic in Melsisi and coordinates the deliveries of vaccines for the other nurses.

Those deliveries are carried out by a Wingcopter 178 Heavy Lift drone, operated by a division of Wingcopter employees assigned specifically to this project. The German drone company Wingcopter holds a contract with the Ministry of Health of Vanuatu and is supported by UNICEF to supply essential vaccines for children in remote villages on Pentecost Island.

Nurse Kayleen receiving the vaccines and icepacks from the Wingcopter drone on the same day she told the mothers from the surrounding villages to bring their children to vaccinate the children. Her Facility does not have a working fridge, footage provided by UNICEF

Wingcopter, together with packaging expert Intelsius, has developed a recyclable and aerodynamic one-way delivery box to safely transport refrigerated vaccines airborne. That way, a single transport from a base station to one of the health facilities now only takes a couple of minutes.

The Wingcopter drones have flown over 3500 kilometers beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), as they delivered vaccines with an average payload of 3.5 kilograms. The payload includes four large packs of ice to cool the vaccines during and after delivery.

To be this efficient, Wingcopter has developed and patented a unique tilting rotor mechanism for their eponymous eVTOL drone. The electrically powered Wingcopter drone combines the advantages of two types of drones: It can take off and land vertically like common multicopters, requiring minimal ground area. For efficient and fast forward flight with maximum thrust, the rotors can be tilted, and the drone transforms into an unmanned fixed-wing aircraft. This enables long ranges of up to 100 km and a Guinness World Record top speed of 240 km/h. The Wingcopter drone flies autonomously and reliably even in strong winds or heavy rain.

The responses from locals and nurses range from gratitude to excitement when last minute requests for vaccine deliveries are met. Nicole, a nurse from Central Pentecost (stationed in Ledungsivi), on a late Tuesday evening asked for a vaccine to be delivered the following day, unscheduled. Usually, a request like this would have caused undue complications. The next morning, the delivery of vaccines to Nicole took as little as 7 minutes from Melsisi to the target station. A 4×4 off-road vehicle would have needed more than one hour to get there. Delivery by car usually costs up to 150 US Dollars, including the return ride.

Nurse Nicole explaining to some children how to behave when a drone is about to arrive. Picture provided by UNICEF.

All of the beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVOLS) flight operations are approved by the Vanuatu Civil Aviation Authority as well as leading CASA regulators that were contracted to consult the project. Wingcopter’s safety procedures include a newly developed release mechanism to descend the delivery box from a safe height and head home immediately without landing.

“With the success of this project, the number of unvaccinated children can be significantly reduced and brings us closer to our vision of saving and improving lives by building a fast and safe drone delivery infrastructure,” Wingcopter staff says.

Wingcopter already partnered with German logistics company DHL on a similar project in Tanzania, where medicine and lab samples were flown by a Wingcopter drone from the Medical Stores Department and a University clinic in Mwanza city and Ukurewe island (Lake Victoria). Waiting times for patients could be reduced from several days to just a few hours.

The initiative is led by Vanuatu’s Ministry of Health and Ministry of Infrastructure & Public Utilities through the Civil Aviation Authority of Vanuatu. Technical support and financing are provided by UNICEF, the Global Fund and the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s innovationXchange.


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