Rwanda uses drones to deliver blood to remote areas
October 25, 2016
Rwanda has started using drones to make up to 150 on-demand, emergency deliveries per day of life-saving blood to 21 transfusing facilities in the western half of the country.
Rwandan president Paul Kagame launched the national drone delivery service during a ceremony in the country's centrally located Muhanga District.
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 blood, an international partnership between UPS, Gavi Vaccine Alliance and Zipline will help the country expand the types of medicines and vaccines that can be delivered.
"Drones are very useful, both commercially and for improving services in the health sector," said Kagame. “We are happy to be launching this innovative technology and to continue working with partners to develop it further.”
Throughout the developing world, access to lifesaving and critical health products is hampered by what is known as the last-kilometre problem: the inability to deliver needed medicine from a city to rural or remote locations due to lack of adequate transportation, communications and supply chain infrastructure.
In Rwanda, postpartum haemorrhaging is the leading cause of death for pregnant women. Blood requires storage and transport at safe temperatures and spoils quickly. Because there are many different blood products and no way to project future needs accurately, 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 impassable 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.
Rwanda's national drone delivery programme enables 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 in the country's Muhanga region where the company maintains a fleet of 15 drones, called Zips.
Each Zip can fly up to a 150km round trip – even in wind and rain – and carry 1.5kg of blood, which is enough to save a person's life. Zips take off and land at the distribution centre, and make deliveries by descending close to the ground and air dropping medicine to a designated mailbox near the health centres they serve. Zipline will make 50 to 150 emergency flights a day to 21 transfusion clinics across the western half of Rwanda and can fulfil orders in around 30 minutes.
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 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. “Zipline will help solve that problem once and for all. We've built an instant delivery system for the world, allowing medicine to be delivered on-demand and at low-cost, anywhere."
The commercial partnership between Rwanda and Zipline is expected to save thousands of lives over the next three years. Through this effort, Rwanda is leapfrogging the absence of road infrastructure to provide healthcare access to all its 11 million citizens.
The work in Rwanda is being further supported by an international partnership between Zipline, UPS and Gavi Vaccine Alliance. Thanks to a US$1.1m grant from the UPS Foundation, the partnership will study Rwanda's blood drone delivery operation with an eye towards helping the country quickly expand the types of medicines and vaccines that can be delivered.
Leveraging UPS's global supply chain and logistics expertise, Gavi's public health and vaccine knowledge, and Zipline's last-kilometre delivery technology, the partnership hopes to use the knowledge gained in Rwanda and export it around the world.
"Drones have the potential to revolutionise the way we reach remote communities with emergency medical supplies," said Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi. “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."
UPS's logistics expertise and resources are expected to play a critical role in helping the partnership expand the reach of this work. The company was able to transport the entire Zipline system from California to Rwanda in record time in a Browntail cargo plane, helping to ensure Zipline's distribution centre could be constructed in just four weeks.
"One of the most important focus areas for the UPS Foundation is to spark public-private partnerships that create powerful scale and drive demonstrable impact in support of global humanitarian aid and relief," said Eduardo Martinez, president of the UPS Foundation. "The shared belief in the ability to save lives through applied innovation, combined with Rwanda's vision, is now not only poised to advance humanitarian logistics – and logistics as we know it – around the world, but also to save lives. Now is when our partnership between the UPS Foundation, Gavi and Zipline counts most, as we see the first operational missions dedicated to shipping lifesaving blood, and keep our eye on what the future can bring for other life-saving commodities, as well as for other parts of the world."
Over the course of the next year, and with the support of the partnership, Zipline plans to expand drone delivery services to countries across Africa and the Americas. Additionally, Zipline recently announced plans at the White House to expand its service to the USA, where it will serve Indian reservations in Maryland, Nevada and Washington State.