A Look at Emerging Drone Delivery Medical Services

UNICEF trial a UAV delivery system to reduce waiting times of infant HIV tests in Malawi. Image Credit: UNICEF/Khonje. 

In just a short space of time the market for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has grown immensely. Leaving aside military UAVs, that smaller varieties of consumer grade UAV have become an affordable product has opened up countless avenues for their application. 

We’re not just talking about providing YouTube with jaw-dropping videos of beautiful landscapes. Those hold value to be sure, but there are many, far more consequential applications of UAVs emerging in humanitarian endeavours. 

By virtue of their highly flexible nature, UAVs can provide immense and unique capabilities; ones significant across a wide range of contexts, be it in agricultural (see, Cleanleap ‘Unmanned Agriculture’), energy, or other industrial sectors. 

That UAVs can fly brings immediate advantages in terms of how they may travel, and the locations they can reach — often surpassing what’s possible with conventional means of transport. Meanwhile, refinements in computer systems has led to advanced navigation and control systems being embedded within UAV systems — a development that’s been crucial in enabling UAV services to function effectively. With improvements in performance, even consumer grade UAVs are able to carry and deliver small packages over considerable distances. 

Altogether these capabilities are converging into a growing niche: UAV-based medical delivery services. 

A key obstacle to improving medical services in developing regions is access. With underdeveloped transport infrastructure and vast distances to remote communities, even the relatively simple act of getting medicine to a patient can become a significant challenge. The so-called ‘last-mile’ of supply chains is invariably the hardest; but it’s doubly so in the case of distribution in developing regions.

UAV-based delivery of medical supplies represents a game-changing approach to promoting healthcare in regions — remote and/or under-developed — where such barriers to rapid delivery exist. 

The application of the technology, now widely trialled and shown to be highly promising, is set to expand over the coming years in a paradigm-shifting approach to transport. 

This is a global effort being supported from a number of angles. While a growing number of start-ups are advancing the concept and developing UAV delivery systems, healthcare non-governmental organisations are playing a vital role as well — providing the necessary medical expertise to ensure systems are deployed in effective manners. We also see several governments embracing the technology too — providing all important permission to trial and deploy UAV delivery systems.

In this article, we consider a few promising examples of UAV-based medical services, and highlight how they’re contributing to this emerging field of healthcare.  

Zipline

First off, we have Zipline International — a Silicon Valley startup who are well underway in establishing a medical UAV service in Rwanda. They’ve already successfully demonstrated their system, but just this month the company announced they’ll begin flying nationwide operations in July under a partnership with the government that’s pitched to establish the world’s first drone delivery network.

Zipline's system works like this: after identifying what supplies are required (blood, medicine etc.) for a patient or a clinic, an order will be received by a central depot. Persons there then prepare and load a drone which will fly out to the clinic, or other destination. Once there, a small package will be airdropped and parachute its way down to the ground for collection as the drone returns to its base. 

Key to the UAV solution is the speed at which supplies can be dispatched and delivered. Zipline’s in-house built UAV — called Zip — features twin electric motors, a wing-span close to 2.5m and can fly about 100km per hour. At launch, Zip can carry 1.3kg; that’s enough for vital medicines, vaccines or blood. Once a destination is programmed in, all flight controls and drop-offs are automated, relying on GPS navigation. 

Zip UAV uses a parachute to deliver their payload

Zipline are planning on extending into other countries later this year, but for now are concentrating on Rwanda. The upcoming scheme hopefully beginning in July will involve Zipline delivering all blood-related products for twenty hospitals and health centres in the country. 

Eventually, Zipline hope to establish a fleet of 15 UAVs network that will be capable of some 50 to 150 deliveries per day, serving a large proportion of the country (for more insights on Zipline, see The Atlantic ‘A Drone To Save The World’ and MIT Technology Review).

Speaking about Zipline, Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization, has stated: “This visionary project in Rwanda has the potential to revolutionize public health, and its life-saving potential is vast,”

Rwanda is actually notable in their embracing the potential of this kind of drone technology. While commercial drone operations and services in the US and Europe have been largely slowed by legislative matters, the Rwandan government seems to have taken a considerably more liberal, progressive approach in their adoption of the technology — recognising practical significance and benefits over and above other (in cases justifiable) concerns.  

It’s an attitude that’s also reflected in plans which will see Rwanda become one of the first countries to host a dedicated 'droneport' — a hugely ambitious and exciting project that extends well beyond medical deliveries. The architectural firm Foster + Partners leading the droneport project hope to see it get underway later this year.

Matternet

Based out of Palo-Alto and London, Matternet is another company intent on establishing a drone-based delivery system that will support healthcare in developing countries. To date they’ve held trials in several countries; work that earned them being named Technology Pioneer of 2015 by the World Economic Forum.

Matternet’s latest UAV — the Matternet ONE — has been designed with transportation in mind. Unlike Zip’s airdrop method, Matternet ONE will land at its destination — allowing someone to recover its cargo from payload area in the centre of the drone. The drone can carry 1kg of cargo over 20km without the need for recharging. That being the case, the company plan to operate larger drones too; ones capable of handling significantly larger payloads. 

More exciting yet, the drones can dock at ground stations, and exchange batteries automatically — without human intervention. Those stations are critical to the network — representing small hubs that sustain the network by allowing drones to travel further on successive charges.

Partnering With The Medical Community

While Matternet and Zipline are examples of private start-ups adopting drone systems to improve health in developing regions, the potentially invaluable role of drones in the provision of healthcare services to remote communities isn’t lost on the medical industry. 

In fact, quite the contrary is true. Matternet, for example, has partnered with the World Health Organisation, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins San Frontieres - MSF), and UNICEF in an effort to realise shared goals. 

Partnering with MSF, Matternet experimented with drones to help fight tuberculosis in Papua New Guinea — where prevalence rates are amongst the highest in the world. 

A small quadcopter — capable of traveling up to about 65km per hour, with a maximum range of about 32km carrying a light payload — was involved in trials which saw samples transported from remote health centres back to hospitals for lab testing. MSF is also now looking into the possibility of transporting results and treatments back to communities after diagnosis.

Just this March, Matternet also partnered with UNICEF to develop a system for drone-based delivery of HIV diagnostic equipment in Malawi. With a national HIV prevalence rate of 10% – one of the highest in the world — the system stands to bring about rapid, life-changing results for the country. The first successful test flight involved a 10km delivery from a community health centre to the Kamuzu Central Hospital laboratory.

Armed with knowledge gained from these and other trials, together with an appreciation for the significance of their solution, Matternet have their sights set on expanding into a more permanent drone delivery network. They estimate that for just $900,000 USD their system could be used to implement a HIV diagnostics network in Lesotho servicing 47 clinics and 6 labs over 138 sq. km with 50 docking stations and 150 vehicles. (More on Cleanleap - A Smartphone HIV & Syphilis Diagnosis Kit In Rwanda - A Cheap Cleanleap! for other ways technology is being used to diagnos HIV).

They reckon that at that scale it would cost just 24 US cents to transport 2kg over 10km. That’s astonishingly cheap — especially considering that if the practice of delivery-by-UAV picks up across the world, economies of scale would dramatically bring that cost down further still.

Matternet’s work with MSF and UNICEF highlights that drones aren’t limited to delivery of medicine to a community. They may prove to play an equally vital role in improving healthcare in respect to what they bring back to doctors and clinics, as well as what they then return to patients. Or even how they respond to emergency situations. 

It’s exciting to imagine how in future set-ups, drones may be fitted with additional health monitoring equipment and features. These drones could be dispatched at short notice to an individual patient’s home or a rural clinic, land, and then used by a patient, or local healthcare worker, before returning to its base or hospital. 

Disaster Response

The ability for UAVs to reach remote locations holds value all over the world; but it’s especially valuable in the event of natural disasters. Earthquakes, floods and storms can damage cars and vehicles, as well as roads and infrastructure, making delivery of vital relief supplies especially problematic.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that UAV delivery services are gearing themselves to assist in such natural disaster and other emergency scenarios.

Some of Matternet’s first field trials were conducted in 2012 in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Demonstrating the technology, they successfully delivered small relief packages to a camp in Port-au-Prince after the devastating earthquake there in 2010 (see, ideas.Ted.com). Without doubt we can expect to see far more drone-based solutions emerging in this context. 

Concluding Thoughts

It ought to be noted that there are also trials of UAV medical delivery services taking place in developed regions too. For instance, there is Flirtey, a UAV-delivery company that dispatched drugs to a medical centre in rural Virginia, USA, last year (The Verge).

Leapfrogging conventional infrastructure, and jumping right to a clean, cost-effective distributed supply service — UAV-based delivery is a remarkably simple idea. But its consequences couldn’t be more profound. We’ve only considered medical supplies here, but of course the same premise can, and indeed is, being applied to a range of other delivery services that also stand to improve the lives millions of people all over the world.
 
Still interested? Check out this TED Talk from Andreas Raptopoulos, Matternet CEO.

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