In a partnership with UPS, a California robotics drone startup and a global aid agency, Rwanda will launch the first national drone delivery service Friday. It will make up to 150 emergency blood deliveries to 21 medical centers in the rural western half of the African nation.
Although the drone service will start with blood deliveries, the partners plan to expand to shipping medicines and vaccines to remote areas of Rwanda.
“Drones are very useful, both commercially and 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,” Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, said in a statement.
The drones and delivery service were developed by Zipline, a Half Moon Bay, Calif.-based robotics company. UPS is providing a $1.1 million grant from the UPS Foundation and its supply chain and logistics expertise. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – an international healthcare agency – will provide the medical expertise.
“Drones have the potential to revolutionize the way we reach remote communities with emergency medical supplies. The hours saved delivering blood products or a vaccine for someone who has been exposed to rabies with this technology could make the difference between life and death,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, Gavi’s chief executive.
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. Postpartum hemorrhaging is the leading cause of death for pregnant women in Rwanda.
Health officials have trouble transporting needed blood supplies to much of the country during part of the year. Rwanda has a lengthy rainy season during which many roads wash out and become impassible. Drones can fly overhead, bypassing the roads. They can also quickly deliver special blood products that transfusion clinics do not keep in stock.
Under the program, blood transfusion clinics will text message emergency orders to Zipline’s distribution center located in the country’s Muhanga region. The company maintains a fleet of 15 Zip drones at the facility.
The drones can fly up to 93 miles, even in inclement weather, and carry 3.3 pounds of blood, which is enough to save a person's life. The Zips make deliveries by descending close to the ground and dropping the supplies at a designated spot near the health centers. They can fulfill orders in about 30 minutes. Speed is important for the patient and because blood requires transport at safe temperatures and spoils quickly.
Rwanda plans to expand Zipline’s drone delivery service to the Eastern half of the country in early 2017, allowing it to reach almost all of its 11 million citizens.
“The inability to deliver lifesaving medicines to the people who need them the most causes millions of preventable deaths each year around the world,” said Keller Rinaudo, Zipline’s chief executive. “We’ve built an instant delivery system for the world, allowing medicine to be delivered on-demand and at low-cost, anywhere.”
The project also will be an important test for whether drones are a viable way to improve vaccine delivery, Berkley said.
Last month, UPS begun tests using a drone from Danvers, Mass.-based CyPhy Works to stage a mock delivery of medicine from Beverly, Mass. to Children’s Island, which is about three miles off the Atlantic coast.
“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,” said Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability.
Zipline said it plans to start a service delivering medical supplies to Indian reservations in Maryland, Nevada, and Washington State. But it will need a waiver from the federal government to fly its drones.
For now, drones will have limited use in the U.S. for shipping and delivery services. The Federal Aviation Administration rules in June governing the use of small commercial drones. The rules require unmanned drones must always be in sight of the operator.