Drones for healthcare: Rwanda starts delivery of life-saving blood

No roads, no problem.

The world’s first national drone delivery service for life-saving blood was launched in Rwanda on 13 October, an initiative that is expected to partly solve the inability to deliver medicine to remote areas with no adequate transportation or supply chain infrastructure. 

Rwandan President Paul Kagame presided over the launch in the country’s Muhanga District, saying that drones are useful not just for commercial purposes but for improving services in the health sector.

“We are happy to be launching this innovative technology and to continue working with partners to develop it further,” he said.

The innovative delivery service first announced in May enables blood transfusion clinics across the Western half of the country to place emergency orders by cell phone text message. The orders are then received by Zipline, a California-based startup robotics company, at its distribution center in Muhanga region where the company maintains a fleet of 15 drones, called Zips.

A Zip is a small robot airplane that uses the same approaches as commercial airliners. It can carry vaccines, medicine, or blood. Each Zip can fly up to 150 kilometers round trip — even in wind and rain — and carry 1.5 kilograms of blood, which is enough to save a person's life. 

Zips take off and land at the distribution center, and make deliveries by descending close to the ground and air dropping medicine to a designated spot called a “mailbox” near the health centers they serve.  Zipline said it will make 50-150 emergency flights a day to 21 transfusion clinics across the Western Half of Rwanda and can fulfill orders in around 30 minutes.

While the service will initially focused on blood, an international partnership between UPS, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and Zipline will expand the types of medicines and life-saving vaccines that can be delivered. Zipline said it will also 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 United States, where it will serve Indian reservations in Maryland, Nevada, and Washington State.

Rwanda and beyond

In Rwanda and the rest of the developing world, the ability to deliver life-saving medicine and other health products, including blood, to remote areas is critical. 

Blood requires storage and transport at safe temperatures and spoils quickly. Because there are many different blood products and no way to accurately project future needs, many transfusion clinics do not keep all the blood they may need in stock. 

During Rwanda’s lengthy rainy season, many roads also wash out becoming impassable or nonexistent. The result is that all too often someone in need of a lifesaving transfusion cannot access the blood they need to survive. Thus, the commercial partnership between Rwanda and Zipline is expected to save thousands of lives over the next three years. 

An international partnership between Zipline, UPS, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance is also supporting the move, through a $1.1 million grant from the UPS Foundation. The partnership will study Rwanda’s blood drone delivery operation looking to quickly expanding the types of medicines and life-saving vaccines that can be delivered.

Combining the extensive global supply chain and logistics expertise of UPS, Gavi’s deep public health and vaccine knowledge, and Zipline’s last-mile delivery technology, the partners hope to use the knowledge gained in Rwanda and export it around the world.

UPS actually transported the entire Zipline system from California to Rwanda in record time in a “Browntail” cargo plane, helping to ensure Zipline’s distribution center 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 and chief diversity and inclusion officer at UPS. “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.”

Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said this project will act as an important test for whether drones are a viable way to improve targeted vaccine delivery around the world. 

According to Zipline, more than two billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products, often due to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure. Because of this, over 2.9 million children under age five die every year. And up to 150,000 pregnancy-related deaths could be avoided each year if mothers had reliable access to safe blood.

“Every child deserves basic, lifesaving vaccines. This technology could be an important step towards ensuring they get them,” Dr. Berkley said.

Drone power

A study released by PwC in May shows that commercial applications of drone technology are valued at over $127 billion. The technology is also poised to have an impact on companies in a broad range of industry sectors. Aside from its use in transport and operational activities, the report noted that it could also have broad uses in comprehensive data gathering (because drones are equipped with cameras and sensors), as well as in supervising and monitoring large-scale infrastructure projects 

In the US alone, the commercial drone industry is projected to generate more than $82 billion for the US economy, according to figures released by the White House.

Aside from healthcare, the use of drones in disaster relief and humanitarian aid is also being explored. UPS participated in a multi-state study coordinated by Measure, a 32 Advisors company specializing in drone applications, on behalf of the American Red Cross to help inform decision-making on key issues related to drone use and policy.

UPS has also been working with drone manufacturer CyPhy Works in testing drones to make commercial deliveries of packages in remote or difficult-to-access locations.

In September, the companies staged a mock delivery of urgently needed medicine from Beverly, Massachusetts to Children’s Island, which is about three miles off the Atlantic coast. The mock session delivered an asthma inhaler to a child at a camp on the island, which is not reachable by car.

“Our focus is on real-world applications that benefit our customers,” said Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability, in a statement. “We think drones offer a great solution to deliver to hard-to-reach locations in urgent situations where other modes of transportation are not readily available.”

The CyPhy drone used in the test is the Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications (PARC) system, which requires very little training,  is extremely durable, has night vision and features secure communications that cannot be intercepted or disrupted.