Shipping giant UPS is partnering with a tiny robotics company and the Vaccine Alliance to explore how drones can safely and effectively deliver medicines such as vaccines and blood across the world, the company said Monday.
The package delivery company is teaming up with Zipline, a Half Moon Bay, Calif.-based robotics company, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, for the project.
They will test examine whether drones can rapidly deliver key medical supplies to remote areas since the products often spoil or fail to reach people when using other means of transportation, UPS said.
“We are extremely interested to learn if UAVs can provide a safe, effective way to make vaccines available for some of the hardest-to-reach children,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi.
Other groups are looking at how drones can be used for humanitarian aid.
Ford Motor Co. plans an experiment where pickups will be electronically tethered to drones for reconnaissance in rugged, natural disaster zones.
The goal is a surveying system for the United Nations Development Program to inspect emergency zones inaccessible to even the most versatile vehicles. Ford believes the technology will enable United Nations first responders to earthquakes or tsunamis to quickly deploy drones that are able to survey and map the hardest-hit areas from the cab of an F-150.
The Rwandan government will start using Zipline drones for blood delivery later this year.
More than 2 billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products, often due to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure, according to Zipline. It estimates that up to 150,000 pregnancy-related deaths could be prevented annually with reliable access to safe blood for transfusions.
Africa has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world due to postpartum hemorrhaging, according to the World Health Organization.
The Rwandan government plans to begin using Zipline drones later this year to transport blood to 21 medical facilities located in the western half of the country. Zipline drones can reach much of the country operating from one central base.
The operation is expected to save thousands of lives over the next three years, UPS said. It may also serve as a model for other countries.
“The inability to deliver life-saving medicines to the people who need them the most causes millions of preventable deaths each year,” said Keller Rinaudo, chief executive of Zipline. “The work of this partnership will help solve that problem once and for all.”
UPS is supporting the Rwanda initiative with an $800,000 grant.
While this project has a humanitarian motive, UPS is closely watching how drones can be used to deliver goods.
Amazon, DHL, Google and others are exploring the use of drones for commercial package delivery.
In a deal worth about $7 million, UPS has ordered 125 hybrid-electric delivery trucks and an additional 18 E-100 all-electric trucks from another start-up, Workhorse Group.
While the contract just covers trucks at this point, Workhorse is developing technology that would allow shipping companies to use low-emission trucks in tandem with drones to create an efficient delivery system.
It has developed the HorseFly battery-powered drone, which can carry up to 10 pounds of cargo with a 15-mile range. Workhorse is already testing the system, having obtained Federal Aviation Administration permits late last year to fly the drone.