How Swoop Aero enables a more resilient health supply chain during the COVID-19 pandemic

News Source Martyn Carroll medium_ Project manager Swoop Aero: Whenever a new technology is introduced to an existing market, it is bound to be compared against the current solution. Is it more effective? Is it more efficient? Does it have a real impact?

The rapidly and continually changing COVID-19 landscape meant efficient solutions had to be found quickly. That is precisely what Swoop Aero has achieved over the last three months. Swoop Aero has been able to continue, and grow their current operations in Malawi. In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, we have been able to assist with the transportation and delivery of COVID-19 medical supplies in the Nsanje and Chikwawa districts.

Since March, with continued support from the UK Department for International Development and UNICEF Malawi, Swoop Aero has maintained, and expanded, the medical drone logistics network to service regional and ‘last mile’ populations. Following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Swoop Aero also successfully adapted its flight operations to alleviate the systemic pressure on the health system to provide COVID19 related supplies to citizens. Today we are taking a step back to reflect on our achievements and the challenges we have faced during these uncertain and ever-changing times.

Helping with the COVID-19 effort

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the world, in particular, posing a critical threat to the stability and capacity of developing health systems to cope with an emergent health crisis. In Malawi, and throughout greater Africa, the spread of COVID-19 has threatened to derail the progress made in the eradication of communicable diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB. In this pandemic context, Swoop Aero has remained agile and innovative, utilising our systems and procedures to maintain the order of operations helping both government and non-government organisations to maintain focus on their response to COVID-19. We will be looking to demonstrate a use-case and value of drones during a pandemic, providing evidence in the reduction of human interactions in the transportation process, observing the reduction of community based transmission rates as well as the redistribution and optimisation of resources; as health workers and district medical staff can continue to direct their main focus on providing care and treatment to patients rather than travel to acquire health supplies.

Increased hygiene and decreased human to human contact have been the main focuses on dealing with the current pandemic. Our team both in Australia and Malawi, have been working closely to find the best possible ways to reduce the hands needed to complete our day to day operations. Working closely with the pharmacy and lab at Nsanje District Hospital, we now have a Swoop Aero member pick up all the samples and packages to be delivered for the day, saving the need for any hospital worker to leave their duties and deliver the package personally. Whilst it may seem a small change, it does help to reduce the amount of handling each package goes through along with increased use of hand sanitiser and face masks help to ensure that we do our part to reduce the spread of any infections.

Our ability to further our understanding of the benefits the programme provides will be vital, we have seen what has been achieved throughout the first few months of this year. Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has definitely reduced how quickly we can set up new routes throughout the districts. We now have a chance to see first hand where we are really benefiting the local community. The data that will be collected over the coming months, as well as the data we have collected to date will demonstrate how we’ve helped the medical community and provide valuable future knowledge.

Maintaining Operations from Australia

The unprecedented scale and rapidity of contagion documented across the world prompted nations’ to impose strict travel and border restrictions. In March, the Australian Government introduced extensive border controls and requested the repatriation of all citizens currently overseas. In these circumstances, Swoop Aero’s International teams, based in Malawi, were required to abandon on-ground operations and return home immediately. However, with approval from Malawi’s Department of Civil Aviation, and the assistance of trained members of the local workforce in Malawi, Swoop Aero was able to continue to deliver essential medical commodities to vulnerable and high risk communities in the Chikwawa and Nsanje districts, piloting the aircraft remotely from Australia. This achievement represented a ‘world first’ in the aeromedical logistics industry

Fortunately, with our own in-house control systems, leveraging high bandwidth and low cost satellite links, we are in a position where we can continue to operate our aircraft within Malawi, whilst being anywhere in the world. As the process to return home proved slower and more protracted than first conceived, due to the dramatic reduction of international flights to Australia, the teams were still able to conduct the initial flight operations in Malawi from Johannesburg on March 23, and subsequently from Australia on March 27. This capability has ensured Swoop Aero continues to meet its mission to attain universally accessible healthcare for those communities residing in Chikwawa and Nsanje.

Achieving this would never have been possible without the assistance of all our local employees who are working hard to maintain all supplies within the districts, while the piloting duties are completed by Swoop Aero in Australia. Currently we have four local hub operators employed and the new addition of an African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA) graduate, who will be beginning to take over the piloting duties from the Australian based team. It is a credit to the community in how they have accepted the programme and trusted its abilities to be able to deliver medical supplies throughout the region, especially at this time of COVID-19. The added complexity of completing the piloting and project management from Australia has not been without challenges. We have found that whilst we have the ability and technology available to complete the tasks at hand remotely, there are increased delays. A few reasons for this include the rapid pace that the Australian team had to leave Malawi where we were unable to provide the level of training we would normally be able to offer in person. Another is helping the Malawi based team to increase their level of computer knowledge, so as to be able to assist with basic problem solving and software development.

I am impressed with how we have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic and still been able to operate daily flights around the districts. Members of the team have taken to their new roles well and met with medical officials around the districts to ensure that all stakeholder engagements are met and that community support is still strong. Senior members have trained new employees on the tasks required for a hub operator and have been assisting with the recruiting of further employees when expanding the network. Time has been spent with the hub operators at both Nsanje and Chikwawa on continued training around computers, we are seeing a large increase in the ability to complete tasks that would otherwise have been completed by the Australian based team. The addition of two new laptops in both office spaces is a welcomed addition.

Continued expansion

Fourteen remote destinations have been established and are currently serviced by our hub within the Nsanje District Hospital. The continued expansion will see our team working throughout the Chikwawa district with current surveying of health centres ongoing. The ability of the local Malawi team to take over the responsibilities that were being completed by the Australian based Swoop Aero employees has been instrumental to the success of the project during these current times. A total of 35 health centres, including two hospitals will be operational throughout the following sprint. This will ensure that all communities around the two districts are receiving essential medical supplies and can be receiving vital support during COVID-19.

During this time, we need to commend the efforts of all medical staff that have helped our ongoing operations, to date we have over 40 trained workers that can receive and deliver the essential supplies. With a further 50 currently being trained in the Chikwawa district, it is amazing to see that the medical staff are happy to utilise the programme so thoroughly and also help educate the wider community of the benefits that the drones are providing. Looking to always improve, we can see the benefits of clear communication. This will become more key further into the project whilst we continue to expand. We want to fit in with the local health centres seamlessly, so that we can be a benefit to each individual system and not a burden on how they operate

With the expansion of the network to all health centres in Nsanje near complete, we will be able to service the communities of Southern Malawi effectively and quickly with the decrease in request times dropping from 9 hours to 45 min in some cases. The growth of the project will also see the team bring on a new member to assist with the piloting duties, with another ADDA graduate planned to join the Malawi team.

Building on these successes, the team both in Australia and in Malawi are looking forward to further expanding the medical drone network across the Chikwawa district to deliver life-saving supplies. Our continued operations, despite COVID-19, has seen our team recognised by the Ministry of Health and Government who have proposed use of our services in providing logistical support from the Mozambique/Malawi border at Mwanza. We will be looking to set up a direct route from Mwanza to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Blantyre, where we will be able to deliver 400–500 COVID-19 test kits per day.

Swoop Aero’s systems can be established quickly throughout the region and with the assistance of the Government, locally based Non-government organisations and with our trained local staff we look forward to supporting the medical effort.

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