Through a partnership with the Government of Rwanda, Zipline, a silicon valley start-up, will deliver all blood products for twenty hospitals and health centers starting this summer, improving access to healthcare for millions of Rwandans. With Zip's unprecedented range, national-scale coverage is achievable from a single home base. These drones will make up to 150 trips per day, carrying blood supplies to clinics in need.
Rwanda has relatively good infrastructure in some places, but in others it can be unreliable, says Moz Siddiqui at the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), one of the partners in the project, along with UPS and California drone company Zipline. “It’s the land of a thousand hills,” he says. “In some areas, access is really difficult, especially when you come to the rainy season, where roads are just not an option.”
That’s problematic for healthcare workers, who may not have the supplies they need to deal with emergency situations – such as postpartum hemorrhage, one of the leading causes of death for women in Africa.
“Drones,” says Siddiqui, “are quite an eloquent solution.” Now, when health workers at one of 21 clinics around the country need a particular blood type, they can send a text to the drone base, nicknamed the Nest. There, a Zip drone will be loaded with up to 1.5 kilograms of supplies. When it arrives at its destination, it will drop the payload, attached to a small parachute. This way, the team says, a trip that might have taken hours by car can be completed in under 30 minutes.
Drone on demand
It isn’t the first time that researchers have turned to drones to transport medical equipment. Last July, the US government signed off on a project to fly pharmaceuticals to rural Virginia using a hexacopter drone. Another project, run by California company Matternet, delivered medicine to a clinic in Haiti.
If all goes well with the Rwanda program, the team plans to expand the drones’ cargo to include rabies vaccines, then perhaps other types of vaccine too.
“When a child gets bitten by a rabid animal, it’s 100 per cent fatal,” says Siddiqui. “You need to actually have a vaccine at that particular point straight away.”
It’s a great idea, subject to a few constraints, says David Salisbury at Chatham House in London. He notes that it’s important to make sure that the package gets exactly where it needs to go and that workers can confirm it’s been received. Another obstacle is the “cold chain”: vaccines must be kept chilled within a narrow temperature range.
But, if the trips are short enough, Siddiqui thinks they might not have to worry about vaccines going bad on the ride over.
Ultimately, he hopes the project can expand to other countries too. “Our intention is to scale any intervention, any project that enables us to actually save lives and have access to vaccines wherever you are,” he says. “We think this can be one of those.”