When Disaster Strikes

MSD is testing the use of drones to deliver medicines during times of crisis.

Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Disease outbreaks.

When disaster strikes and infrastructure collapses, people can die when their medications can’t reach them. Since electricity and roads can take significant time to be restored, how do disaster-relief teams get medication to those who need it most?

Partnering for disaster relief

MSD is partnering with small and large organizations, both public and private, to see if drone delivery of medications during crises could be an option of the future.

How MSD envisions the drone testing to play out in the real world

Learning to fly

The first drone flight to deliver medicines in a test environment, took place in Lugano, Switzerland in April 2017. It proved the drone delivery method may not be such a far-fetched idea after all. The second and third flights in Puerto Rico toward the end of 2018 helped the project team refine the technology over varied terrain and water.

Many partner organizations are involved, including the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Meanwhile, MSD employees from many areas of our company — supply chain, manufacturing, corporate responsibility, IT, MSD aviation and security — are lending their expertise to help test this potential method of medicine delivery.

Watch how MSD is piloting medicine drone delivery for disaster relief

Meet Pablo

Pablo Maestre, security lead for MSD in Puerto Rico, helped with the most recent testing following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in August 2018. It’s a project that is very close to his heart.

Pablo lost his uncle, Ivan Maestre — who lived on the western edge of the island — three months after Hurricane Maria struck the island; the Category 4 storm was the island's most severe natural disaster in modern history.

“My uncle Ivan was a severe diabetes patient — he needed injections three times a day. He was without insulin for more than a month. Even I was not aware,” Pablo recounts. “When he finally received insulin, he was in bad condition. Several weeks later, his health declined, he had renal failure, and he died.”

The drone team recently acknowledged Pablo’s contributions, and his personal loss, by giving the project a new nickname. Once called “Major Tom” after the David Bowie song, it’s now “Project Ivan.”

“I don’t have words enough to show my gratitude,” Pablo says. “This is about saving lives.”

The Team

Direct Relief, a California-based non-governmental organization that is one of MSD’s humanitarian relief partners, is coordinating the work. They are testing how such systems can be deployed in an emergency and securing the participation of health centers in Puerto Rico.

MSD conceived of the project and is funding the tests and donating medications for delivery, using its Las Piedras facility in Puerto Rico as the departure point.

Softbox, from England, makes the small temperature-controlled packaging system for transporting cold chain medications - those requiring constant refrigeration.

AT&T’s Internet of Things (IoT) technology is being used to monitor the temperature and location of Softbox’s cold chain boxes.

Volans-i is providing the long-range delivery drones and is controlling the flights.