ACCRA, Ghana — With the outbreak of COVID-19, many countries in Africa are struggling due to poor infrastructure, limited access to clean water, alarming rates of poverty and a lack of health care facilities and sanitation. Estimates determine that 21.4% of the people in Ghana live in poverty. However, one company is making a positive impact on the health crisis. Zipline is a Silicon Valley startup that uses drones to deliver essential health care equipment. Zipline delivers COVID-19 tests in less than 30 minutes, and it is the first initiative in the world to combine drone technology with medicine to stop the spread of COVID-19.
In many African countries, the pandemic has both worsened the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and revealed the vulnerability and ineffectiveness of many health care systems. The whole country of South Sudan only has four ventilators and 3,000 critical care beds. In Nigeria, there are less than 29 sites that test for COVID-19, despite having a population of 195 million people.
While there is also a shortage of COVID-19 test kits, the biggest problem lies in their distribution. Ghana only has two medical laboratories that analyze the test swabs, and all rural clinics must deliver their samples there. The two lab sites are located in Ghana’s two largest cities, Kumasi and Accra. Safely transporting the test samples by land can take up to six hours and the waiting time usually takes up to several days because ambulances try to make their trips cost-effective.
Zipline’s Mission & Solution
Zipline is a health care logistics and medical delivery company that launched its services in Ghana in 2019. Prior to COVID-19, it delivered chemotherapy drugs, antivenins, plasma, blood, vaccines and various PPE to both patients and hospitals in rural areas through autonomous drones. As of 2020, Zipline delivers COVID-19 tests to Ghana’s laboratories in Kumasi and Accra.
Its drones collect the test samples and fly to their distribution centers located all across Ghana, and then Zipline packs the received samples into bio-safe containers and places them into the drone bellies. The drones then fly to the laboratories in Kumasi and Accra, both of which have designated drop-off areas. The laboratories’ medical personnel receive an SMS notification to pick up the delivery. The drones drop it off from a high elevation, but all bio-containers land safely because of their specially designed attached parachutes. The entire process takes around 30 minutes. Before Zipline’s work in Ghana, self-flying drones did not make long-range deliveries of medical equipment or supplies in high-density living areas.
The Good News
Data from a Johns Hopkins study shows that the spread of COVID-19 across African countries is much slower in comparison to other regions of the world. The African continent has a population of 1.2 billion people, but only has 300,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in comparison to North America, which recently crossed the 10 million mark.
So far, Zipline has made 44,349 commercial deliveries and is continuing to minimize its waste while delivering products and essential health care equipment. Zipline’s stations in Ghana not only act as drone airports but also as medical warehouses. Each warehouse makes hundreds of deliveries per day and has an almost 9,000 square mile service area. Each drone has a cruising speed of 60+ miles per hour (100 km/h) and is able to carry 3.85 lbs (1.75 kg) of cargo. One drone flight can deliver three units of blood in a 50+ mile (80 km) service radius, and it is capable of flying almost 190 miles (360 km) on one battery charge. From Zipline’s two collection points in Ghana, the drones can deliver 15,000 tests a day in only 300 flights. Zipline also invests in Ghana’s local job market by providing work and volunteer opportunities to young local talent.
The Future of Zipline
Zipline has contracts with more than 2,500 hospitals and health clinics in Ghana and Rwanda. As soon as the company gets the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval, it will be launching its first two locations in North Carolina and California.
Zipline plans on using the same system to distribute PPE and test kits across the United States. The company is also considering extending its services to deliver routine medications to patients who have immunodeficiencies, chronic illnesses or are in the high-risk group for contracting COVID-19.
Every day, Zipline delivers COVID-19 tests and continues to provide health care services through its high-tech initiatives to combat the spread of the virus. Its work and mission is a bright spark in these uncertain times, and it continues to demonstrate how innovation and medicine can intersect to create something the world has never seen before.
– Anna Sharudenko