Zipline launches medical drones in Rwanda- Solving the guess work issue

Image: Keller Rinaudo, Zipline CEO and HE Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda

Zipline, a robotics company based in California, recently launched the use of medical drones to transport bloods to remote hospitals in the Western province of Rwanda, that have challenges with lack of proper infrastructure and quick access to medical supplies. The launch at Kabgayi hospital, in the Southern Province of Rwanda was in the presence of HE Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda.

Boris from Cleanleap recently interviewed Justin Hamilton, Zipline spokesperson to get an insight about the Zipline project in Rwanda.

Boris: How did you come up with the drone idea?

Justin: Two years ago, we learned about a project that researchers had implemented across Tanzania. By distributing cell phones to rural clinics, the researchers trained health workers to send text reports every time a patient came in with a life-threatening condition that could be prevented by having access to basic medicines. 

The reality was terrifying: researchers collected a database of death, where every entry was a life that could have been saved had they been able to get the product quick enough. We've designed Zipline to solve the second half of this problem. We know who needs medicine, when and where. And now, we can get them that medicine as quickly as possible using drones.

Boris: Talking about the technicality part of the drones what's the uniqueness of your done?

Justin:  Our "Zips" are fixed wing, meaning they glide on two wings like an airplane and are different than the popular quadcopter model.  Zipline’s vehicles do not require any input from a human pilot to fly. For each delivery site, we pre-program safe flight paths, which the aircraft can then autonomously fly hundreds of times.

 A trained operator monitors all active flights, and can issue high-level commands to a vehicle if she detects an error or some other unexpected event. Also, our vehicles take off and land without the need for a runway, A custom catapult can quickly launch multiple aircraft, and we have developed a method for recovering aircraft in a similarly compact area. We've designed an elegant parachute that slows the fall, keeping the product and people on the ground safe.

Boris: Zipline had announced that 21 clinics will be benefiting from your service currently, but how many beneficiaries/people will you reach out?

Justin: We hope to help save thousands of lives over the next few years.

Boris: What is the major problem that Zipline will be solving with the drones?

Justin: Throughout the developing world, access to lifesaving and critical health products is hampered by the last-mile problem: the inability to deliver needed medicine from a city to rural or remote locations due to lack of adequate transportation, communication and supply chain infrastructure. In Rwanda, postpartum hemorrhaging is the leading cause of death for pregnant women. Blood requires storage and transport at safe temperatures and spoils quickly.

Because there are many different blood products and no way to accurately project future needs, many transfusion clinics do not keep all the blood they may need in stock. During Rwanda’s lengthy rainy season, many roads wash out becoming impassible or non-existent.  The result is that all too often someone in need of a lifesaving transfusion cannot access the blood they need to survive. 

Zipline changes that. Rwanda’s national drone delivery program enables blood transfusion clinics across the Western half of the country to place emergency orders by cell phone text message. Rwanda plans to expand Zipline’s drone delivery service to the Eastern half of the country in early 2017, putting almost every one of the country’s 11 million citizens within reach of instant delivery of lifesaving medicines. 

Image: Zipline blood drop

Boris: How sustainable is your business model? And what about the cost-effectiveness, isn't the delivery going to be expensive for the government?

Justin: Zipline partners with governments to fund our service. It is offered at cost parity to the government other existing technologies like motorcycles, but offers a much higher level of reliability, timeliness, and operational efficiency. There is little variable cost per flight, and our Zips are designed to perform more than one thousand deliveries. On top of this, the economic benefits of a healthier population are immeasurable. 

Boris: What do you think about the challenges of having bloods but less access to medical Doctors?

Justin: People need both doctors and medicine, it's not either or. We're focused on increasing access to medicine.

Boris: Some people or analysts have criticized the Zipline project in Rwanda as too advanced for a country like Rwanda to be focusing on at the moment, mainly because they think that those technologies will not last long, how would you challenge this?​

Justin: Rwanda is now leading the world in using technology to broadly expand healthcare and save lives and we're excited to help.

The work in Rwanda is being further supported by an international partnership between Zipline, UPS-A US based global leader in logistics, offering a broad range of solutions including the transportation of packages and freight and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Zipline has been granted $1.1 million from the UPS Foundation, the partnership will study Rwanda’s blood drone delivery operation with an eye towards helping the country quickly expanding the types of medicines and lifesaving vaccines that can be delivered.

Leveraging UPS’s extensive global supply chain and logistics expertise, Gavi’s deep public health and vaccine knowledge, and Zipline’s cutting edge last-mile delivery technology, the partnership hopes to use the knowledge gained in Rwanda and expand drone delivery services to countries across Africa and the Americas.


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