Medical Drone Delivery in Africa
Zipline’s Ambitious Medical Drone Delivery in Africa
In Rwanda, an early commercial test of unmanned aerial vehicles cuts a medical facility’s time to procure blood from four hours to 15 minutes.
Reporting by Jonathan W. Rosen June 8, 2017
You can hear the drone before it’s visible, whining like a mosquito above the hillside grounds of Rwanda’s Kabgayi District Hospital. Emerging through a patch of fog, roughly 100 feet in the air, the small plane quickly disappears again, circling in an oblong pattern as it descends toward an altitude low enough to make its drop. After a period of silence, it’s suddenly back, swooping over the roof of Kabgayi’s accident ward to drop its payload on the driveway with a thud. On the ground lies a red cardboard container, roughly the size of a shoebox, attached to a parachute made of wax paper and biodegradable tape. The contraption may resemble a children’s art project, but its contents are lifesaving. Packed tightly inside are two units of human blood, which will probably soon be used for transfusions during surgeries or complicated childbirths, or to treat young victims of malaria.
The plastic sachets of blood are among the first commercial products ever delivered by drone, part of a partnership between the Rwandan government and the Silicon Valley–based robotics firm Zipline, which began introducing the blood drops at -Kabgayi in late 2016. The service, which is now delivering to seven of 21 planned facilities, is still in its infancy. Yet it has already had an impact. In the past, hospital staff would make three drives per week to procure blood products in the capital, Kigali, 60 kilometers away, a three- to four-hour round trip. Emergencies meant additional trips—sometimes resulting in life-threatening delays. Now, a Kabgayi lab technician simply taps out an order on a smartphone and Zipline’s distribution center, located five kilometers from the hospital, will have a drone there within 15 minutes. “Before, it was a serious problem to have blood when we needed it,” says Espoir Kajibwami, a surgeon who served as Kabgayi’s medical director until February. In emergency cases, he says, the hospital would often send the patient to the national referral hospital in Kigali rather than wait for the blood to arrive.
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Zipline’s blood deliveries come at a time of great activity in the world of drone-enabled commerce. Last December, three years after announcing its much-publicized Prime Air service, Amazon conducted its first commercial drone delivery, to a farmhouse in rural England. The month before, the convenience-store chain 7-Eleven completed 77 on-demand drone deliveries of pizza, Slurpees, and over-the-counter medicines to customers in Reno, Nevada. UPS, which has helped finance Zipline’s operations through a $1.1 million grant from its charitable foundation, delivered a package in February with a drone launched from the top of one of its signature brown trucks. Flirtey, the drone maker behind the 7-Eleven pilot, has also tested the delivery of medicines in understocked parts of Appalachia. Another U.S. firm, Matternet, has conducted test flights in collaboration with UNICEF to deliver infant HIV test kits in Malawi.
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Yet Zipline, which uses fixed-wing drones that have a greater range and are more resilient in bad weather than the more common multicopter models, is the first in the world to offer regular delivery of emergency medical products.
Founded in 2011 under the name Romotive, the company first gained notoriety as the maker of Romo, an iPhone-powered robotic pet, before CEO Keller Rinaudo decided to seek a product that would have a greater social impact. Soon he and Zipline cofounders William Hetzler and Keenan Wyrobek were scouring the developing world to learn how drone-based logistics could help save lives.