- The tech company Zipline has engineered autonomous drones that travel hundreds of kilometers to deliver vital medical supplies to rural health centres in Rwanda and Ghana.
- Doctors and health facilities use an app to order blood, vaccines, and PPE that get delivered in a matter of minutes.
- The company started delivering vital COVID-19 tests and samples to test facilities in Ghana as cases began to rise in the country.
- Zipline is preparing to deliver supplies by drone in the US, but needs FAA approval.
- View more episodes of Business Insider Today on Facebook.
The tech company Zipline has engineered its drones to carry desperately needed blood, vaccines, and medical supplies to rural medical centres in Rwanda and Ghana.
Flying over terrain that would take hours to cross via car or truck, drones are able to deliver packages straight to doctors in minutes without any direct human interaction.
The scale and demand for medical attention is increasing globally as efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus ramp up. Governments are embracing technology to bridge the gap between patients and treatment for populations in rural areas shut off from main roads.
“It was just really obvious to us that logistics only served a small subset of the human population well. Especially when it comes to healthcare logistics,” Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo told Business Insider Today.
When Zipline’s flight operations began in 2016, the company had contracts with 21 hospitals in Rwanda and only delivered blood. It has since expanded to 160 different medical products, and is contracted to serve close to 2,500 hospitals and health facilities across Rwanda and Ghana.
“Before, in remote Ghana, it’s difficult to get these samples that are taken from suspected persons to the cities to run the tests,” Kwame Kwarteng, a flight operator for Zipline, told Business Insider Today.
“So if the samples are not enough, the government is not going to invest the time and the money to transport these samples to the city to do the test.”
While a lack of widespread testing can make exact numbers difficult to trace, data from Johns Hopkins University shows a slow spread of COVID-19 in Africa compared to the rest of the world. The continent has a population of 1.2 billion, but only about 63,000 cases of the virus and 2,300 deaths have been reported.
The Ghanaian government began easing lockdown restrictions in its two largest cities, Kumasi and Accra, the capital, on April 20. Since the easing, COVID-19 cases have more than quadrupled to 4,700, with 22 deaths. Rwanda has confirmed 284 cases with zero deaths so far.
For now, Zipline has been able to keep up with its health centre’s demands for necessary tests and personal protective equipment.
Doctors can use Zipline’s app to place orders and track shipments. Each drone’s flight is fully automated and monitored from its distribution centre. Drones can be launched five to seven minutes after an order is received, with flight times ranging from 15 to 30 minutes.
“We’ve actually been able to see a spike in certain hospitals instantaneously where outbreaks are occurring,” Rinaudo said. So having a responsible logistics system doesn’t just mean you can respond to an outbreak faster. It also means you can actually spot an outbreak faster.”
The engineering team at Zipline built a drone more akin to a plane that flies completely autonomously through any weather conditions. On a single battery charge, the drone can fly close to 300 kilometers round-trip.
“We operate in crazy weather every single day. So we fly through insane wind, insane rain, insane dust storms in order to reach a patient whose life is depending on us,” Rinaudo said.
Zipline has locations in California and North Carolina preparing to make deliveries in the US if and when the company gets FAA approval.
Last month the FAA awarded $US2.6 million in grants to universities partnered with the agency, with funds dedicated to researching ways drones can be safely integrated into US airspace.
But the regulator is dealing with what Rinaudo calls a “disruptive technology,” and writing unified laws for a new and largely unknown piece of tech presents its own hurdles. Zipline says it can quickly scale operations to meet the needs of the United States – it just needs the green light.