Zipline: Drones Save the World
During a routine C-section, a patient loses consciousness. The medical staff discovers that compatible blood for a transfusion is unavailable in the hospital. They put in an urgent call to a blood distribution center, which then sends a flying drone carrying the correct blood type within minutes. The life-saving blood is given to the patient, who regains consciousness. This may sound like an episode from a TV hospital drama, but it is a reality in Rwanda.
Many diseases can be prevented by improving access to treatments and medication. Postpartum hemorrhaging and malaria can lead to anemia (a shortage of healthy red blood cells), which requires a blood transfusion. With traditional methods of delivering blood from transfusion clinics to hospitals often difficult due to treacherous terrain and underdeveloped infrastructure in countries like Rwanda, using drones to bypass obstacles can save lives.
Since October 2016, an American start-up called Zipline has been using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to transport blood, plasma, and coagulants to 21 medical facilities across western Rwanda. Lead by CEO Keller Rinaudo, the California-based company’s vision is “to build an instant delivery system for the planet,” which it has begun implementing with the help of the Rwandan government and their Ministry of Health. So far, more than 2,600 units of blood have been delivered in over 1,400 flights, with drones traveling a total of 100,000 km.
Now Zipline is aiming to establish a delivery network in Tanzania — a country 35 times larger than Rwanda — by 2018. Land-based deliveries are often impractical for rural hospitals, especially in large countries such as Tanzania where only 8% of its roads are paved. By using drones, delivery times are cut from 4 hours to 30 minutes or less. According to Dr. Diane Gashumba, the Rwandan Minister of Health, “every second you gain is critical. The fact that Zipline was a solution… we didn’t hesitate.” The Tanzanian government evidently agrees as it plans to make 2,000 blood deliveries per day to over 1,000 medical facilities. HIV and anti-malarial drugs, antivenoms, and medical supplies are also being considered for delivery.
Health workers can request Zipline deliveries via text or Whatsapp. Items are then packed with a parachute at a distribution center and loaded onto a fixed-wing UAV. The 12-kilogram drone is catapulted into the air and navigates to a pre-programmed location using GPS. Upon reaching its destination, the UAV drops the 1.5-kilogram package in a designated zone, and the aircraft then returns to base for its next delivery. With an operational range of 150 km, each drone can fly up to 110 kph, only landing to charge its nose-mounted battery for the next flight. The drones can also fly in light rain and 30-kph winds.
Fast and convenient drone-based deliveries are highly practical during medical emergencies. However, non-ideal weather such as heavy rain and winds can prevent flights; additionally, the small size of the drone limits its package size. Therefore, improving infrastructure for land-based deliveries is still crucial, as a developed road network also has long-term benefits for the economic development of these developing nations. Also, a country’s economic growth will affect Zipline’s ability to deliver medicines. Rwanda and Tanzania both have adequate resources to set up and maintain drone and blood storage centers. Conversely, poverty-stricken countries like Somalia and Ethiopia are less advanced.
While there are still major hurdles, this drone-based delivery system of medical necessities saves lives by automating and streamlining the health care system by first addressing the “low hanging fruit” medical needs of these nations. In an age where UAVs are associated with military operations and unwanted surveillance, dropping much-needed medication and supplies is a great use of this technology.