Rwanda officially kicks off the Zipline drone delivery service of life-saving blood

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The government of Rwanda has officially launched Zipline , the world’s first national drone delivery service expected to make up to 150 on-demand, emergency deliveries per day of life-saving blood to 21 transfusing facilities located in the western half of the country.

According to the president, the drones, are very useful, both commercially and for improving services in the health sector.

”We are happy to be launching this innovative technology and to continue working with partners to develop it further,” said Rwandan President Paul Kagame. This launch makes Rwanda, the first in the world to leapfrog the absence of road infrastructure and to provide cutting edge healthcare access to all its 11 million citizens using drones.

Zipline will initially focus on blood then medicines and lifesaving vaccines. 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.

“The inability to deliver life saving medicines to the people who need them the most causes millions of preventable deaths each year around the world. Zipline will help solve that problem once and for all,” said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo. “We’ve built an instant delivery system for the world, allowing medicine to be delivered on-demand and at low-cost, anywhere.”

Apart from the government of Rwanda  and Zipline, UPS and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance are active partners. the UPS Foundation recently gave a $1.1 million grant to Zipline to 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. Gavi’s deep public health and vaccine knowledge has also been very significant.

The partners aim to export the technology to the entire world and are using Rwanda as a test drive. Over the course of the next year, the partners aims to expand drone delivery services to countries across Africa and the Americas.  The White House also plans to expand the service to the United States to serve Indian reservations in Maryland, Nevada, and Washington State.

“Drones have the potential to revolutionise the way we reach remote communities with emergency medical supplies. The hours saved delivering blood products or a vaccine for someone who has been exposed to rabies with this technology could make the difference between life and death,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

This is not just fancy technology. Throughout the developing world, access to lifesaving and critical health products is hampered by 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.

Rwanda’s national drone delivery program will therefore enable blood transfusion clinics across the Western half of the country to place emergency orders by cell phone text message. The orders are then received by Zipline at its distribution center located in the country’s Muhanga region where the company maintains a fleet of 15 drones, called Zips.

Each Zip can fly up to 150 km round trip—even in wind and rain—and carry 1.5kg of blood, which is enough to save a person’s life. Zipline will make 50-150 emergency flights a day to 21 transfusion clinics across the Western Half of Rwanda and can fulfill orders in around 30 minutes.