The United Nations Population Fund has a mission to improve family planning across the developing world. But it faces a problem in remote, rural areas where the roads aren’t finished and transportation is difficult: It can’t get birth control pills, condoms, and medical supplies to the women and men who would use them if they had them.
So, now the UNPF is experimenting with a new solution: unmanned aerial vehicles, a.k.a. drones. It’s currently piloting a fleet of long-flying UAVs in the Upper East Region of Ghana, in West Africa. And, if successful, the program could be extended to several other countries, including Rwanda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique.
“Drones not only overcome infrastructure challenges of poor roads, heavily forested areas or deserts, but can also slash the time needed to wait for life-saving medicines and other supplies,” says Renee Van de Weerdt, a senior technical adviser to the UNFPA. “They help cut the costs of ground transport using cars, truck or motorbikes on a slow journey over rough terrain, as one drone can cover multiple journeys per day.”
It’s estimated that 220 million women in developing countries (women who don’t want to get pregnant) lack access to contraceptives and family planning information, and that 80 million women in 2012 became pregnant unintentionally. In Sub-Saharan Africa, which has the highest unintended pregnancy rate, just 20% of women use modern contraception.
Van de Weerdt says drones can be used in emergencies, like complications during childbirth. They can reduce stock-outs, and save villages from having to install refrigeration to store medicines like oxytocin, which is used to stop heavy bleeding during childbirth.
The drones UNPF is testing are five feet wide and can carry up to 4.5 pounds in cargo. They can take off and land vertically and, with fixed wings, can cover long distances “relatively quickly.” A journey from an urban center to a rural location that used to take two days now takes 30 minutes. Local health workers are informed ahead of time about deliveries, so they’re ready to meet the drones when they arrive.
“As costs of drones drop and more solutions go to market, we see tremendous possibilities,” Van de Weerdt says. “We’re excited they might help overcome the challenges in reaching women and young people with reproductive health care. But first we must test various designs in several settings and countries and fully assess their costs and benefits.”