Drones and healthcare may sound like an unusual partnership, but in an effort to improve the access to vital medications, vaccines, and blood supplies, a new project in Rwanda will take to the skies in a bid to use drones to deliver essential medical supplies to remote regions of the country.

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Drones are set to deliver essential medical supplies to remote regions of Rwanda.
Image credit: Zipline Inc.

In a joint partnership between Rwanda’s Ministry of Health, Gavi (the Vaccine Alliance), and Zipline – an autonomous robotics company based in San Francisco, CA – a new national drone delivery network is due to launch this summer, delivering blood supplies to remote and hard-to-access regions across Rwanda.

The project will also test the suitability of drones for the delivery of a wider range of medical products and vaccines.

The project has been backed by global delivery and logistics giant UPS through its “global citizenship” arm, the UPS Foundation. It will initially involve Zipline establishing a small launching hub for a fleet of 15 autonomous drones.

When a patient needs a blood transfusion, antibiotics, or vaccines, a doctor, nurse, or health center technician will send Zipline a text message and a drone will airdrop the needed supplies within 30 minutes.

The drone will send a message to the health center when it is 2 minutes away, and the package, equipped with a parachute, will fall slowly to the ground. The aircraft would then return to the launch hub.

Our mission is to deliver critical medical products to hospitals and health centers that are basically unreachable with standard modes of transportation. Patients frequently die because of lack of access to a basic medical product that exists in a central warehouse 75 kilometres away but can’t make it out that final mile to the person who needs it.”

Keller Rinaudo, Zipline co-founder and CEO

Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, said: “It is a totally different way of delivering vaccines to remote communities and we are extremely interested to learn if UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] can provide a safe, effective way to make vaccines available for some of the hardest-to-reach children.”

The drones that will be used in the project can reach a speed of 140 km/hour and fly in inclement weather and heavy winds. Using military-grade GPS, the unmanned aircraft are able to fly autonomously, based on a pre-determined route before air-dropping their payload at the required location.

They are capable of carrying up to 3.5 pounds, allowing them to transport two standard packets of blood.

Zipline is launching its service in Africa, Rinaudo says, because the area’s medical supply delivery system is broken. The relative lack of infrastructure on the continent makes emergency medical deliveries especially difficult. The last mile of delivery is usually done by motorbike, which can be expensive and unreliable.

Staffed by former aerospace employees from NASA, SpaceX, and Boeing, Zipline has partnered with both the National Centre of Blood Transfusion, in Rwanda, as well as signing a deal with Rwanda’s Ministry of Health to provide medical delivery services.

These partnerships will see Zipline delivering all blood products for 20 hospitals and health centers starting this summer, improving access to healthcare for millions of Rwandans.

Public-private partnerships are the key to solving many of the world’s challenges, with each partner contributing its unique expertise. UPS is always exploring innovative ways to enhance humanitarian logistics to help save lives, and we’re proud to partner with Gavi and Zipline as we explore ways to extend the Rwandan government’s innovations at a global scale.”

Eduardo Martinez, president of The UPS Foundation and chief diversity and inclusion officer at UPS

Zipline hopes that the Rwanda project will pave the way for wider deployment of the company’s drones to other countries around the world.

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