Drone deliveries take-off

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A new type of unmanned aerial vehicle will fly up to 150 emergency medical shipments a day across Rwanda, and subsequently in other countries, reports Will Waters

The practical application of drone technology within niche air freight markets has taken a significant step forward in the form of a medical shipment delivery system in Rwanda, which will subsequently be used in other developing countries or inaccessible areas.

A partnership involving a humanitarian healthcare shipper, a robotics company, the Rwandan government, and delivery and logistics group UPS has launched the world’s first national drone delivery service in a ground-breaking project that has the potential to dramatically improve healthcare provision and logistics across the developing world. The Rwandan government begun using the drones in October to make up to 150 on-demand, emergency deliveries per day of life-saving blood to 21 transfusing facilities located in the western half of Rwanda.

The drones and delivery service are built and operated by Zipline, a California-based robotics company. While Rwanda’s drone delivery service will initially focus on shipments of blood for transfusions, an international partnership between UPS, the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), and Zipline will help the country quickly expand the types of medicines and lifesaving vaccines that can be delivered.

Rwanda’s national drone delivery programme enables 21 blood transfusion clinics across the western half of the country to place emergency orders by mobile phone text message. The orders are then received by Zipline at its distribution centre located in the country’s Muhanga region, where the company maintains a fleet of 15 drones, or ‘Zips’, which can fulfil orders in around 30 minutes.

Each Zip can fly a round trip of up to 150km − even in wind and rain − carrying 1.5kg of blood, which is enough to save a person’s life, the project partners said. Zips take off and land at the ‘Nest’, and make deliveries by descending close to the ground and ‘air dropping’ medicine via a mini-parachute system to a designated spot called a ‘mailbox’ near the health centres they serve.

Rwanda plans to expand Zipline’s drone delivery service to the Eastern half of the country in early 2017, putting almost every one of the country’s 11 million citizens within reach of instant delivery of lifesaving medicines.

The drone delivery solution aims to solve a problem commonly experienced throughout the developing world, where access to lifesaving and critical health products is hampered by ‘the last-mile problem’: the inability to deliver much-needed medicine from a city to rural or remote locations due to lack of adequate transport, communication, and supply chain infrastructure.

In Rwanda, post-partum haemorrhaging is the leading cause of death for pregnant women. Blood requires storage and transport at safe temperatures and spoils quickly, but because there are many different blood products and no way to accurately project future needs, many transfusion clinics do not keep all the blood they may need in stock.

During Rwanda’s lengthy rainy season, many roads wash out, becoming impassible or non-existent. The result is that all too often someone in need of a lifesaving transfusion cannot access the blood they need to survive, the project participants said.

“The inability to deliver life-saving medicines to the people who need them the most causes millions of preventable deaths each year around the world,” said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo. “We’ve built an instant delivery system for the world, allowing medicine to be delivered on-demand and at low-cost, anywhere.”

Rwanda and beyond

He said the commercial partnership between Rwanda and Zipline was expected to save thousands of lives over the next three years, with Rwanda leading the world by using cutting-edge technology to leapfrog the absence of road infrastructure and to provide healthcare access to all its 11 million citizens.

Benefiting from a US$1.1 million grant from the UPS Foundation, the partnership will study Rwanda’s blood drone delivery operation with an eye towards quickly expanding the types of medicines and vaccines that can be delivered. With UPS’s global supply chain expertise, Gavi’s public health and vaccine knowledge, and Zipline’s last-mile delivery technology, the partnership hopes to “use the knowledge gained in Rwanda and export it around the world”, the partnership said.

UPS will also use its logistics resources to help the partnership expand its reach. For example, the company transported the entire Zipline system from California to Rwanda in one of its cargo aircraft, helping to ensure Zipline’s distribution centre could be constructed in just four weeks.

Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, commented: “Drones have the potential to revolutionise the way we reach remote communities with emergency medical supplies. The hours saved delivering blood products or a vaccine for someone who has been exposed to rabies with this technology could make the difference between life and death.

“This project will also act as an important test for whether drones are a viable way to improve targeted vaccine delivery around the world. Every child deserves basic, lifesaving vaccines; this technology could be an important step towards ensuring they get them.”

Over the course of the next year, and with the support of the partnership with UPS and Gavi, Zipline said it plans to expand drone delivery services to countries across Africa and the Americas. Zipline also recently announced plans to expand its service to the US, where it will serve Native American reservations in Maryland, Nevada, and Washington State.