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Flying pharmacy: UOG class tests drone delivery of medicine in Pohnpei

Updated: May 14, 2023




By Jeni Ann Flores


On April 2, a $120,000 drone successfully took off from Seinwar Elementary School in Pohnpei, carrying a 7lb load of preventive medicine, and delivered it to Ahnd Atoll 10 miles away.


The test flight was “proof of concept” for a University of Guam Master of Business Administration capstone project called HOVERx.


Members of the class - Justin Andre, Chirag Bhojwani, Camarin Cabral, Hazel Estrellado, Maiko Nakamura, Michelle Puno, Rylynn Sapong, Jimi Taitano and Christian Valencia - created a business plan to prove the numbers are sustainable for a nonprofit with a sales target of 80 deliveries per month at a cost of $200 per delivery.


Using funds provided by local sponsors, they flew to Pohnpei to show that drones can be used to deliver healthcare items to remote areas in the Micronesian region.


The drone was provided by Bella Wings Aviation and was flown by one of BWA’s pilots, Michael Quitugua.


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The team had to speak with the government and traditional leaders in Pohnpei to allow them to do the launch. The response to the project was very positive. In fact, the question asked was “How fast can we implement this?”


“The proof of concept brilliantly displayed by HOVERx proved that drone deliveries can have an impact on outer islands/atolls," said Charlie Hermosa, adjunct professor and capstone adviser.


Delivery of pharmaceuticals is not new in the drone world. Organizations like Zipline design, manufacture and operate automated delivery services in Rwanda and Ghana, where it serves more than 2,000 healthcare facilities.


While the idea is not far-fetched, it is not without its difficulties. Besides the weather, there are geopolitical security issues in the region. Drone delivery can be used for illegal activity. There are no airspace restrictions right now, but land ownership needs to be addressed. Capacity needs to be developed - drones need to land and recharge in stations and trained personnel need to be close by. The Internet has to be consistent.


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Seventy-one percent of residents in the region do not have health coverage. Grants will be the primary source of funds for HOVERx. Their primary customer base will be local government, healthcare providers and NGOs like United Nations Development Programs.


Drone delivery of pharmaceuticals will be of great benefit to the Micronesian population, most of whom live in remote areas. Many depend on a boat to deliver the most basic goods.


Some areas are not even accessible by boat. Drones can deliver devices that will allow remote consultation with doctors. Blood and urine samples can be sent back to Guam for analysis.


The technology may help local economies diversify through training and education.


Drone delivery makes sense in both remote rural as well as urban areas. The carbon footprint of drones is much less than trucks, buses, planes or boats.


Hermosa is also president and co-founder of Bella Wings Aviation, one of the leading drone companies on Guam. BWA recently announced an exclusive partnership with Valqari for the manufacture of delivery drones and drone delivery workforce development on Saipan.


According to Marianas Variety, BWA has a memorandum of understanding with Northern Marianas Technical Institute to develop a curriculum that will train local workforce in drone engineering and manufacturing.


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“The partnership with Valqari to manufacture drone delivery stations in Saipan is a huge step forward in bringing tech manufacturing to this region. The stations are secure/closed chains of custody of deliveries for controlled items. They also serve as WifFi hubs/hotspots, and framework to have for telemedicine screens,” said Hermosa.


While the graduate paper that created HOVERx is already at the cusp of being achieved by BWA, which is well on its way to creating the infrastructure for home deliveries of more than just medicine, anyone can use the HOVERx model, set up shop and start flying. Therein lies the beauty of the wide-open skies of the business of drones.


Jeni Ann Flores dba Hummingbird Enterprise, is an educator, and a drone and robotics coach. She is studying to take her FAA Part 107 pilot license. You may read more of her writing at www.teacherseditionflores.blogspot.com. You may reach her at teachersedition.flores@gmail.com



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