Humanitarian Supply Chain: Vaccine Delivery Drones for Children in Need

Last-mile distribution for vaccines is more important than ever

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Editor’s Note: The SCM thesis Potential Benefits of Drones for Vaccine Last-Mile Delivery in Nepal was authored by Adriana Lembcke and Ornipha Vongasemjit and supervised by Tim Russell ([email protected]). For more information on the research, please contact the thesis supervisor.

The terrain of the Himalayas presents big challenges in last-mile distribution

Nepal’s current average vaccine coverage hovers around 78%, and 59 out of 77 districts have not yet been fully immunized. Finding an efficient way to make vaccines more accessible by reviewing last-mile delivery is key to improving immunization coverage throughout the whole country.

Which districts in Nepal could utilize drones for last-mile delivery to improve vaccine availability? Our research not only tackled this key problem but also quantified the benefits derived from drone implementation and identified the most effective drone use strategy. Although several studies have shown that drones are an innovative way to deliver medical supplies in regions that have similar challenges as Nepal, the benefits and limitations thereof were still unclear.

To answer this question, a district classification framework for drone application was developed and a list of potential districts was obtained using software to manage and analyze spatial data. An optimization model was also created for selected districts in Nepal using different variables such as a specification of drones, shipment sizes, and costs of transportation modes and their ranges.

The new kids on the block (drones) aren’t so new anymore

In the past few years, there has been a lot of dialogue around the possibility of drone delivery services. Some major e-commerce companies are deploying drones in their fulfillment operations and distribution centers. Moreover, this technology has already been operating for a greater purpose in the developing world, such as carrying life-saving medical supplies.

Although drone technology may increase the cost to deliver vaccines, we believe that this application would have advantages over the traditional mode of transportation.

Addressing the problem of low immunization coverage could help reduce Nepal’s child mortality rate. The solution could also potentially expand the practical benefits outside developing countries, as it can be implemented during the current pandemic for Covid-19 vaccine distribution or in disaster relief scenarios when roads are damaged or become impassible due to flooding, earthquakes, or other causes.

Through discussions with UNICEF’s drone experts, MIT researchers, and information from our literature review, we created a district classification framework that used quantitative and qualitative data to provide recommendations of where to deploy drones. This framework includes steps that are repeatable and scalable and can be replicated for other geographies. The framework can help organizations such as UNICEF or Ministries of Health address the question of where to implement drones for vaccine last-mile delivery.

A real and feasible solution for Nepal?

Overall, our findings show that the most favorable area for drone application in Nepal is located around the mountain range that borders Tibet in the north. The districts of Karnali Province have the most potential benefits for drone application, and the districts of Province 2 have the least.

From our optimization model, we find that due to the limited range and payload, small electric drones present no significant cost benefits over the current mode of transportation (i.e., by foot, motorcycle, and car). Also, larger drones are recommended for vaccine last-mile delivery. The recommended drone for this operation has a 200-kilometer range and a 11-kilogram payload. The simulation results finally showed that drones only provide cost benefits when startup cost is subsidized or when the operation is outsourced with a variable cost lower than $0.10/dose.

Every year, approximately 80 students in the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics’s (MIT CTL) Master of Supply Chain Management (SCM) program complete approximately 45 one-year research projects. These students are early-career business professionals from multiple countries, with two to 10 years of experience in the industry. Most of the research projects are chosen, sponsored by, and carried out in collaboration with multinational corporations. Joint teams that include MIT SCM students and MIT CTL faculty work on real-world problems. In this series, they summarize a selection of the latest SCM research.

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