Until three months ago, nurse Leopoldina Castelli used to send bottles of breast milk to nourish babies in the remote areas of Tacuarembó, in northern Uruguay, by way of ambulances or military trucks. That is, if the vehicles were available and the roads were passable, which wasn’t always the case. Now, five days per week, she stands by a runway at the hospital, located in Tacuarembó’s capital, watching a drone take off and disappear from view, carrying the milk to clinics that serve the babies’ families.
The drones can fly as far as 62 miles. Long distances and rough roads are no obstacles. The babies, whose mothers struggle to produce sufficient milk and cannot afford formula, now receive ample supplies for healthy growth. “Today we provided nourishment to a significantly larger number of children, and this is something that deeply moves me,” Castelli says.
About two decades ago, the Tacuarembó hospital established its own milk bank, supported by donations from mothers across Tacuarembó. Over the years, the bank has provided milk to infants immediately after birth. It's helped drive a “significant and sustained” decrease in infant mortality, says the hospital director, Ciro Ferreira.
But these children need breast milk throughout their first six months, if not longer, to prevent malnutrition and other illnesses that are prevalent in rural Tacuarembó. Ground transport isn't quick or reliable enough to meet this goal. It can take several hours, during which the milk may spoil due to a lack of refrigeration.
The battery-powered drones have been the difference-maker. The project to develop them, financed by the UNICEF Innovation Fund, is the first of its kind in Latin America. To Castelli, it's nothing short of a revolution. Tacuarembó Hospital, along with three rural clinics in the most impoverished part of Uruguay, are its leaders.
"This marks the first occasion when the public health system has been directly impacted [by our technology]," says Sebastián Macías, the CEO and co-founder of Cielum, an engineer at the University Republic, which collaborated on the technology with a Uruguayan company called Cielum and a Swiss company, Rigitech.
The drone can achieve a top speed of up to 68 miles per hour, is capable of flying in light rain, and can withstand winds of up to 30 miles per hour at a maximum altitude of 120 meters.
"We have succeeded in embracing the mothers from rural areas who were previously slipping through the cracks of the system," says Ferreira, the hospital director. He envisions an expansion of the service so it can improve health for children in other rural areas.
Nurses load the drone for breast milk delivery.
Sebastián Macías - Cielum
The star aircraft
The drone, which costs approximately $70,000, was specifically designed for the transportation of biological materials. Constructed from carbon fiber, it's three meters wide, two meters long and weighs 42 pounds when fully loaded. Additionally, it is equipped with a ballistic parachute to ensure a safe descent in case the technology fails in midair. Furthermore, 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 adhere to the United Nations’ standards for transporting perishable products. These compartments accommodate four gallons or 6.5 pounds of cargo. According to Macías, that's more than sufficient to carry a week’s worth of milk for one infant on just two flights, or 3.3 pounds of blood samples collected in a rural clinic.
“From an energy perspective, it serves as an efficient mode of transportation and helps reduce the carbon emissions associated with using an ambulance,” said Macías. Plus, the ambulance can remain available in the town.
Macías, who has led software development for the drone, and three other technicians have been trained to operate it. They ensure that the drone stays on course, monitor weather conditions and implement emergency changes when needed. The software displays the in-flight positions of the drones in relation to other aircraft. All agricultural planes in the region receive notification about the drone's flight path, departure and arrival times, and current location.
The future: doubling the drone's reach
Forty-five days after its inaugural flight, the drone is now making five flights per week. It serves two routes: 34 miles to Curtina and 31 miles to Tambores. The drone reaches Curtina in 50 minutes while ambulances take double that time, partly due to the subpar road conditions. Pueblo Ansina, located 40 miles from the state capital, will soon be introduced as the third destination.
Overall, the drone’s schedule is expected to become much busier, with plans to accomplish 20 weekly flights by the end of October and over 30 in 2024. Given the drone’s speed, Macías is contemplating using it to transport cancer medications as well.
“When it comes to using drones to save lives, for us, the sky is not the limit," says Ciro Ferreira, Tacuarembó hospital director.
In future trips to clinics in San Gregorio de Polanco and Caraguatá, the drone will be pushed to the limit. At these locations, a battery change will be necessary, but it's worth it. The route will cover up to 10 rural Tacuarembó clinics plus one hospital outside Tacuarembó, in Rivera, close to the border with Brazil. Currently, because of a shortage of ambulances, the delivery of pasteurized breast milk to Rivera only occurs every 15 days.
“The expansion to Rivera will include 100,000 more inhabitants, doubling the healthcare reach,” said Ferreira, the director of the Tacuarembó Hospital. In itself, Ferreira's hospital serves the medical needs of 500,000 people as one of the largest in Uruguay's interior.
Alejandro Del Estal, an aeronautical engineer at Rigitech, traveled from Europe to Tacuarembó to oversee the construction of the vertiports – the defined areas that can support drones’ take-off and landing – and the first flights. He pointed out that once the flight network between hospitals and rural polyclinics is complete in Uruguay, it will rank among the five most extensive drone routes in the world for any activity, including healthcare and commercial uses.
Cielum is already working on the long-term sustainability of the project. The aim is to have more drones operating in other rural regions in the western and northern parts of the country. The company has received inquiries from Argentina and Colombia, but, as Macías pointed out, they are exercising caution when making commitments. Expansion will depend on the development of each country’s regulations for airspace use.
For Ferreira, the advantages in Uruguay are evident: "This approach enables us to bridge the geographical gap, enhance healthcare accessibility, and reduce the time required for diagnosing and treating rural inhabitants, all without the necessity of them traveling to the hospital,” he says. "When it comes to using drones to save lives, for us, the sky is not the limit."