High-flying service expected to take flight in other African countries this year, as Tanzania announces launch of ‘world’s largest’ drone network for medical supply and clinical laboratory specimen deliveries
Anatomic pathologists and medical laboratories know that blood is a scarce and life-saving commodity. This is especially true in developing countries. Rising to that need, a California-based logistics company is using drones to provide on-demand access to vital blood supplies in Rwanda and Tanzania, creating a so-called “Uber for blood” delivery service that is poised for deployment to other regions in Africa as well.
Silicon Valley Start-up Zipline is an American automated logistics company based in California that transported more than 5,500 units of blood in 2017 to 12 regional hospitals from a base in the east of Rwanda, reported The Guardian.
The high-flying Silicon Valley startup began operating in the African nation in October 2016 and has cut blood delivery time from four hours to an average of about 30 minutes! Shipments arrive by parachute, dropping within a narrow target landing zone.
Though the Rwandan government, which is funding the project, has not officially released data quantifying the drones’ impact, the fixed-wing drones (called Zips) have been credited with reducing deaths due to malaria, childbirth, and other medical emergencies.
World’s Largest Drone Delivery Network
In August, Zipline announced plans to launch what it claims is the world’s largest drone delivery network in partnership with the government of Tanzania, a country of 56 million people. Zipline will open four distribution centers in the country during the next four years, with the first drones taking to the air in the first quarter of 2018 from the Tanzanian capital city of Dodoma, according to Cargo Forwarder Global (CFG), a cargo and logistics industry news website.
“Every life is precious. The government of Tanzania through the Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children, has made great achievements in improving health services including the availability of medicines in all public health facilities,” Mpoki Ulisubisya, MD, Permanent Secretary of the Tanzania Ministry of Health, stated in a press release. “Our vision is to have a healthy society with improved social well-being that will contribute effectively to personal and national development; working with Zipline will help make that vision a reality.”
Each of the four distribution centers will be equipped with up to 30 drones, capable of making 500 on-demand delivery flights per day. Drones will provide access to more than 1,000 clinics, many of which lack well-functioning supply chains due to surface roads that “become increasingly bumpy and eventually impassable, particularly during the rainy season,” the CFG website reported.
“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 hard-to-reach areas,” Laurean Bwanakunu, Director General of Tanzania’s Medical Stores Department, said in a news 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.”
According to Zipline, health workers at remote clinics and hospitals text orders to Zipline for the medical products they need, which are stored in distribution centers. Within minutes, a Zipline Distribution Center can pack and prepare blood and other stored medical products for the 60-mph flight to any delivery site within a 93-mile round trip.
“Millions of people across the world die each year because they can’t get the medicine they need when they need it,” noted Rinaudo. “It’s a problem we can help solve with on-demand drone delivery. Now African nations are showing the world how it’s done.”
Rinaudo told IEEE Spectrum that Zipline expects to expand its operations to several other countries in 2018, though he did not specify where Zips will be flying next. He said the next generation of Zips will be able to fly longer distances, carry larger payloads, and make more deliveries per day.
“Rwanda has shown such remarkable success that a lot of other countries want to follow in its footsteps,” noted Rinaudo. “The problems we’re solving in Rwanda aren’t Rwanda problems, they’re global problems—rural healthcare is a challenge everywhere.”
Drones Delivering Medical Laboratory Specimens Globally
Africa is not the only part of the world where drones are taking flight to deliver blood and medical laboratory specimens. Johns Hopkins University Medicine researchers set a record in America for the longest distance drone delivery of viable medical specimens when its test drone traveled 161 miles across the Arizona desert, an event that Dark Daily reported on in November.
And in Switzerland, an eight-hospital medical group in Lugano partnered with Swiss Post (Switzerland’s postal service) and transportation technology manufacturer Matternet of Menlo Park, Calif., to successfully use drones to transport medical laboratory samples between hospitals, as noted in another Dark Daily report.
As drone technology improves, use of UAVs to transport blood and medical supplies and clinical laboratory specimens from point A to point B will likely become commonplace. They soon could be overflying a neighborhood near you!
—Andrea Downing Peck