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Drones to Deliver Medical Supplies in Rwanda

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 25 May 2016
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Image: The Zip aerial drone (Photo courtesy of Zipline).
Image: The Zip aerial drone (Photo courtesy of Zipline).
In an effort to improve access to vital medications, vaccines, and blood supplies, a new project in Rwanda will use aerial drones to deliver essential medical supplies to remote and hard-to-access regions across Rwanda.

The national drone delivery network is a joint partnership between Rwanda's Ministry of Health (Kigali) and National Centre of Blood Transfusion; Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (Geneva, Switzerland); and Zipline (San Francisco, CA, USA). The project has been backed by global delivery and logistics giant UPS (Atlanta, GA, USA) through its global citizenship arm, the UPS Foundation.

Due to launch in the summer of 2016, the network will initially involve Zipline establishing a small launching hub for a fleet of 15 autonomous Zip drones. When a patient needs a blood transfusion, antibiotics, or vaccines, a doctor, nurse, or technician will send Zipline a text message and a drone will airdrop the needed supplies within 30 minutes. The drone will send a message to the health center when it is 2 minutes away, and the package, equipped with a parachute, will fall slowly to the ground. The aircraft would then return to the launch hub.

“Our mission is to deliver critical medical products to hospitals and health centers that are basically unreachable with standard modes of transportation,” said Keller Rinaudo, co-founder and CEO of Zipline. “Patients frequently die because of lack of access to a basic medical product that exists in a central warehouse 75 kilometers away but can't make it out that final mile to the person who needs it.”

“It is a totally different way of delivering vaccines to remote communities and we are extremely interested to learn if UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] can provide a safe, effective way to make vaccines available for some of the hardest-to-reach children,” said Seth Berkley, MD, CEO of Gavi.

“Public-private partnerships are the key to solving many of the world's challenges, with each partner contributing its unique expertise,” added Eduardo Martinez, president of The UPS Foundation. “UPS is always exploring innovative ways to enhance humanitarian logistics to help save lives, and we're proud to partner with Gavi and Zipline as we explore ways to extend the Rwandan government's innovations at a global scale.”

The Zip drones that will be used in the project can reach a speed of 140 km/hour and fly in inclement weather and heavy winds. Using a military-grade global positioning system (GPS), the unmanned aircraft are able to fly autonomously based on a pre-determined route before air dropping their payload at the required location. They are capable of carrying up to 1.6 kilograms, allowing them to transport two standard packets of blood.

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