Rwanda Zipline delivers crucial medical supplies using drones.

By Mark Kawalya

Remote locations are often logistically challenged when it comes to delivering much-needed medical ­supplies. Zipline, a US medical distribution firm, has a solution to this. The company deploys custom-made drones, which have, over a six-year period, dropped off almost 2 million medical products.

The firm partnered with the Rwandan government and launched the world’s first commercial drone-aided delivery service. The move has enabled the ferrying of essential medical supplies to far-flung hospitals using air. At the close of 2016, the company had delivered more than 4000 units of blood products to twelve hospitals in the East African country. Otherwise, the deliveries would have been made using a tangled road network, with a 4-minute drone delivery taking 3 hours by road. When dealing with medical emergencies, time is of the essence and every second counts. By radically cutting delivery times, Zipline enables medical workers to save more lives.

Aside from when dealing with emergencies, time is also crucial when utilising perishable medical supplies such as vaccines, making Zipline’s almost instant drone drop-off necessary.

The firm is a spin-off from a company called Romotive that was founded by three Harvard graduates in 2011. At the start, Keller Rinaudo, Keenan Wyrobek and William Hetzler wanted their company to specialize in making robotic toys. A trip to Tanzania in 2014 for Rinaudo changed all that. He met with students at Ifakara Health Institute who had invented a mobile alert system that would enable health workers to text emergency requests for medicines and vaccines.

Justin Hamilton, head of PR for Zipline, tells us. “Thanks to this system, health workers made thousands of emergency requests, which had never before been possible. Unfortunately, there was no way for the government to fulfill these requests. With a history in robotics, Keller and his team created Zipline to fulfill medical requests using drones.” 

Each week, the firm’s drones fly more than 40,000 km as they make 14,127 drops across Rwanda and Ghana. The two countries are just the beginning for Zipline. According to Hamilton, the firm has plans to expand across Africa, the Americas and South Asia.  “Our goal is to serve 700 million people in the next five years,” he concludes.

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