KIGALI, RWANDA — Zipline, Inc. commenced drone delivery in Rwanda in October 2016. The fixed-wing drone fleet delivers blood ordered with a text message to remote medical facilities across the country. The groundbreaking venture means Rwanda is the first country in the world to use drone technology to save lives.
The project is the product of a partnership between the Rwandan government and Zipline, Inc., a robotics company based in Silicon Valley, California. Zipline has teamed up with the UPS Foundation and the Gavi Vaccine Alliance to fund and develop the initiative. The venture is paid for by Rwanda’s health department on a per-delivery basis.
Rwanda’s small network of hospitals and medical centers are often accessible only by unpaved dirt roads that are especially treacherous during the rainy season. These facilities do stock blood but supplies can be too limited to account for emergency procedures or for patients with rarer blood types. Rwanda’s health department has only five blood storage facilities: a national center in Kigali and four smaller depots.
Pregnant women in Rwanda are particularly vulnerable to blood shortages. According to the World Health Organization, one maternal death occurs for every 344 live births in Rwanda. Twenty-six percent of the maternal deaths that occur after birth result from hemorrhaging.
Medical centers send staff on restocking trips to one of Rwanda’s blood storage facilities a few times a week. However, emergency procedures often deplete local stocks and require additional trips. For patients in critical condition, the four-hour wait for a new blood delivery from a national depot can seriously reduce chances of survival.
Zipline’s average fulfillment time is just 30 minutes. Medical staff at one of Rwanda’s remote facilities can order blood for delivery with a single text. The drones can travel to medical centers up to 75 kilometers away. In densely populated Rwanda, this range means Zipline can service about half the country’s population from a single hub.
Unlike other drone delivery systems, Zipline’s drones do not need to land to complete distribution. The drones drop wax paper parachutes holding the requested supplies in a designated zone on the premise. This delivery system eliminates the need for hospitals to set up costly infrastructure to support drone landings.
Currently, Zipline’s drone delivery in Rwanda operates out of a single hangar that stocks blood, platelets, fresh frozen plasma and cryoprecipitate. These coagulants are underutilized in Rwanda because they are difficult to store. Zipline cofounder William Hetzler plans to expand Zipline’s inventory to include additional medical supplies such as medication for tuberculosis and HIV, emergency rabies vaccines and diagnostic test kits.
Hetzler admits that drone delivery in Rwanda is more expensive for hospitals than routine restocking trips taken by many remote centers. However, the deliveries save medical facilities money in emergency situations. Additionally, overall hospital delivery expenditures will decrease when Zipline expands its product offerings beyond blood.
Critics of the partnership note that Rwanda’s medical care system faces challenges that extend beyond the limited number of blood storage facilities. The country suffers from a shortage of doctors and other trained medical personnel. Underdeveloped infrastructure means patients have a hard time accessing medical centers.
Furthermore, there are inherent difficulties when utilizing drones in a country familiar with armed conflict. Civilians often are unable to distinguish between “good” humanitarian drones and “bad” militarized drones. To accommodate Zipline’s philanthropic venture, the government had to develop new licensing and operation regulations.
Zipline has already significantly cut waiting times for blood delivery at medical centers. The company has the capacity to service an even larger network of hospitals. Currently, Zipline delivers to only seven of 21 planned sites. By expanding its client base and diversifying their product offerings, Zipline has the potential to further improve access to basic medical supplies for all Rwandans.
– Katherine Parks