In the remote areas of northern Uruguay, technological innovation has been helping ensure mothers and babies remain healthy by sending breast milk via drone over the past three months. And the people working on this innovative project believe it can serve as a global model for overcoming healthcare accessibility challenges in remote areas.
Dronfies Labs by CIELUM – with support from the UNICEF Venture Fund – is piloting use of drones to transport medicines, blood samples and donated breast milk from Tacuarembó Hospital to the rural communities of Tambores, Curtina, and Ansina. The unmanned battery-powered drones navigated by trained pilots from a base at the hospital deliver up to 3 kilograms and 15 liters of medical supplies to areas within a flight range of 100 kilometers.
The hospital is one of the largest in Uruguay’s interior and serves 500,000 people. It used to send the breast milk from its milk bank by ground transportation – via ambulances or military trucks if the vehicles were available and the roads were passable. But sometimes the wait for an available vehicle meant the milk would spoil.
Now, five days a week, a drone carries the milk to clinics that serve the babies’ families.“Today we provided nourishment to a significantly larger number of children, and this is something that deeply moves me,” says nurse Leopoldina Castelli.
UNICEF has recognized Tacuarembó Hospital as the country’s first Baby-Friendly hospital. As a priority, the transport of human milk to and from the breast milk bank – the first to be established inland – is scheduled for children who urgently need it because they are premature, underweight or malnourished. Thanks to those strategies implemented 20 years ago, and the regional CTI (Intensive Treatment Centre) for children, the region achieved a sustained decrease in infant mortality; starting from very high figures (23 per thousand) to one of the lowest in the country.
“We have succeeded in embracing the mothers from rural areas who were previously slipping through the cracks of the system,” says the hospital director, Dr. Ciro Ferreira. He envisions an expansion of the service so it can improve health for children in other rural areas. “When it comes to using drones to save lives, for us, the sky is not the limit.”
The drone, which costs approximately $70,000, was designed to transport biological materials. Constructed from carbon fiber, it’s three meters wide, two meters long and weighs 42 pounds when fully loaded. Equipped with a ballistic parachute to ensure a safe descent in case the technology fails in midair, it can achieve a top speed of 68 miles per hour, fly in light rain, and withstand winds of 30 miles per hour at a height of 120 meters. Inside, the drones feature three refrigerated compartments that maintain a stable temperature and can accommodate four gallons or 6.5 pounds of cargo.
“We’re at a turning point at Dronfies Labs, witnessing the power of our advanced low-altitude airspace management platform, CIELUM, in facilitating essential medical drone deliveries,” says CEO Sebastián Macías. “This is more than a local initiative; we believe it can serve as a global model for overcoming healthcare accessibility challenges in remote areas.”
The drone strategy shortens diagnosis and treatment time for people who live in rural areas without them needing to come to the hospital, says Dr. Ferreira, “The delivery of samples for examinations and their processing in the central laboratory can be done quickly, and will serve rural doctors for adequate decision-making in a timely manner; as well as a greater collection of pasteurized human milk for our newborns at the children’s CTI. It will also be possible to deliver medical supplies or specific medicines to the polyclinics, in specific situations that do not admit delays, such as the shipment of anti-venom serum.”
Strengthening health systems to reach remote communities UNICEF, Jul. 27, 2023
Breakthrough drones deliver breast milk in rural Uruguay Leaps.org, Oct. 3, 2023
Cover image: Nurses load the drone with breast milk. Photo by Sebastián Macías