Higher Education: Flying Pharmacies

Auburn University and Toyota Material Handling North America are collaborating to explore how material handling can play a key role in improving access to health services in rural populations.

By Daniel F. Silva and Alice E. Smith

Dr. Daniel Silva, Assistant Professor of Industrial Engineering, Auburn University, and Brett Wood, President & CEO of Toyota Material Handling North America, are shown above at ProMat 2019 with a poster of the project.

The United States is facing a crisis in the availability of health care in low-income, rural areas and, it has been said that, “Alabama is ground zero for everything that is wrong with rural health care.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services classifies 57 out of Alabama’s 67 counties as medically underserved areas, including 11 counties that have the additional designation of “Low-income, medicallyunderserved population.” This is due to the combined effect of insufficient hospitals and too few physicians. It has been reported that there is currently a shortage of over 200 physicians in rural Alabama, with some people having to drive 70 miles or more to get to a doctor.

It is widely accepted that no single policy change will solve the rural health care crisis. However, several health care experts have suggested that telemedicine can help alleviate it. Telemedicine is the use of telecommunication and information technology to provide clinical health care from a distance. This may include seeing a doctor via videoconference, receiving medications or medical supplies in the mail, and sending samples or used supplies back through the mail. Telemedicine has already been implemented in varying degrees throughout the United States. However, one component of telemedicine that has proven difficult to implement is the delivery of medicines and medical supplies (and pick up of empties and samples) to vulnerable populations in rural or remote areas.

To test the proposed tools and algorithms, the team built a detailed computer animation environment for virtual testing.

MHI member Toyota Material Handling North America (TMHNA), composed of Toyota Material Handling and The Raymond Corporation, is funding Auburn University professors Daniel Silva and Alice Smith through the TMHNA University Research Program (URP) to explore the ways in which new material handling and logistics technologies can enable reaching patients in remote areas in a fast, efficient and costeffective manner. Specifically, the team aims to develop the models, algorithms and computational tools necessary to optimally and dynamically dispatch, route and schedule transports of medicines, samples and medical supplies to patients in a rural setting in real time using a coordinated fleet that includes both trucks and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also referred to as drones. While this application is medical in nature, the approaches being developed are applicable to a wide variety of last mile logistics situations.

Read more…