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Lifesaving Blood From the Sky: Drones Deliver Medical Supplies

Photos courtesy of Zipline

One pint of blood can save as many as three lives — but, blood transfusions can’t save lives if it is not easily accessible.

More than 90 percent of roads in Africa wash out each year, creating a hurdle between medical supplies and patients in need. Transporting blood from blood banks to hospitals and clinics in rural areas takes hours, if hospital workers can even reach the patient at all. The lack of adequate transportation, communication or infrastructure often leads to preventable deaths.

One California-based company is fixing that issue and revolutionizing medical supply delivery.

The solution: drones.

Now, these fixed-wing aircrafts powered by lithium-ion battery packs and twin electric motors deliver lifesaving supplies such as blood transfusion supplies and medications to even the most remote locations — all within 15 minutes.

Zipline, a tech startup out of silicon Valley, started the medical drone delivery service in Rwanda in October 2016. It was world’s first national drone delivery service to make on-demand emergency blood deliveries to transfusion clinics across the country.

Since the launch, Zipline has flown more than 100,000 km throughout Rwanda, delivering more than 4,000 units of blood over 2,000 flights. The country aims to put its 12 million citizens within 30 minutes of any essential medical products.

“Drones are very useful, both commercially and for improving services in the health sector,” Rwandan President Paul Kagame said in a press release. “We are happy to be launching this innovative technology and to continue working with partners to develop it further.”

After less than a year in Rwanda, Zipline announced plans to expand to Tanzania, a larger neighboring country in East Africa.

In early 2018, Zipline will launch the world's largest drone delivery network in partnership with the Tanzanian government. With four distribution centers and more than 100 drones, the service will provide emergency on-demand access to critical medicines in up to 2,000 deliveries per day for 10 million people across Tanzania.

Zipline will work with the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and the country's Medical Stores Department to deliver blood transfusion supplies, emergency vaccines, HIV medications, antimalarials and critical medical supplies like sutures and IV tubes to medical facilities.

“We strive to ensure that all 5,640 public health facilities have all the essential medicines, medical supplies and laboratory reagents they need, wherever they are—even in the most the hard to reach areas” said Laurean Bwanakunu, Director General of Tanzania's Medical Stores Department, in a press release.

“But that mission can be a challenge during emergencies, times of unexpected demand, bad weather, or for small but critical orders. Using drones for just-in-time deliveries will allow us to provide health facilities with complete access to vital medical products no matter the circumstance,” Bwanakunu said.

zipline medical delivery drones

How it Works

Zipline’s 5-step process gets medical supplies delivered to remote clinics within 15 minutes of placing an order — rain or shine.

  1. Text the order
  2. Pack it up
  3. Takeoff
  4. Direct delivery
  5. Recovery

First, a health worker orders the media products they need via text message. Then, the items get packaged at the local distribution center. Each drone can hold three pounds.

Minutes later, workers are alerted the order has launched. The unmanned aircraft races through the sky at nearly 70 miles per hour using satellite navigate to arrive at the location. Using a parachute, the drone safely drops the package at the delivery site.

The health workers do not have to worry about recovering the drone. They can retrieve the package and quickly return to caring for the ill.

Saving Lives Through Innovation

Millions die across the globe every year because they do not have access to the proper medical supplies. In Rwanda, Zipline helped thousands of women who were dying from postpartum hemorrhaging (PPH) each year. Drone-led medical delivery services can impact many other communities battling with preventable deaths by bringing vaccines, medication and supplies to remote locations.

zipline packages

“Drones have the potential to revolutionize 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,” Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said in a press release.

Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo said African nations are showing the world how drone technology can move communities forward.

“Millions of people across the world die each year because they can’t get the medicine they need when they need it,” Rinaudo said in a press release.

“It’s a problem in both developed and developing countries,” he said. “But it’s a problem we can help solve with on-demand drone delivery.”

drone launch rwanda sunset

What do you think of using drones in health care? Where else can services like these make an impact?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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