Although starting with blood deliveries, the partners plan expanding to shipping medicines and vaccines to remote areas of Rwanda.
“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,” Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, said in a statement.
The drones and delivery service were developed by Zipline, a Half Moon Bay, Calif.-based robotics company. UPS is providing a $1.1 million grant from the UPS Foundation, and its supply chain and logistics expertise. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – an international healthcare agency – will provide the medical expertise.
“Drones have the potential to revolutionize 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, Gavi’s chief executive.
The firm points out that more than 2 billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products, often due to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure, according to Zipline.
It estimates that up to 150,000 pregnancy-related deaths could be prevented annually with reliable access to safe blood for transfusions.
Africa has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world due to postpartum haemorrhaging, according to the World Health Organization.
Health officials have difficultyin transporting needed blood supplies to much of the country during parts of the year. Rwanda has a lengthy rainy season, many roads mainly 'murram' graded mud and simply wash out, whole regions are cut off for months on end. Drones fly overhead, bypassing roads, eliminating delays.
Under the programme, blood transfusion clinics text message emergency orders to Zipline’s distribution centre located in the country’s Muhanga region. A fleet of fifteen Zip drones are available.
The drones can fly, when fully charged up to 93 miles, even in inclement weather. They can carry 3.3 pounds of blood, which is enough to save a person’s life. The drones descend,but do not land, close to the ground and drop the package on a parachute at a designated spot near the hospital/ rural health centres.
The order cycle can usually be completed in less than 30 minutes. Speed is important for the patient and blood requires transportation at safe temperature, so can spoil quickly.
Following an evaluation of the initial trials, Rwanda plans to expand Zipline’s drone delivery service to the Eastern half of the country in early 2017, allowing it to reach almost all of its 11 million citizens.
“The inability to deliver lifesaving medicines to the people who need them the most causes millions of preventable deaths each year around the world,” said Keller Rinaudo, Zipline’s chief executive.
“We’ve built an instant delivery system for the world, allowing medicine to be delivered on-demand and at low-cost, anywhere” he added.
The project also will be an important test for whether drones are a viable way to improve vaccine delivery, Berkley said.
Last month, UPS begun tests using a drone from Danvers, Mass.-based CyPhy Works to stage a mock delivery of medicine from Beverly, Mass. to Children’s Island, which is about three miles off the Atlantic coast.
“We think drones offer a great solution to deliver to hard-to-reach locations in urgent situations where other modes of transportation are not readily available,” said Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability.
Zipline said it plans to start a service delivering medical supplies to Indian reservations in Maryland, Nevada, and Washington State.
But first it will need a waiver from the federal government to fly its drones.
For now, drones will have limited use in the U.S. for shipping and delivery services. The Federal Aviation Administration rules in June governing the use of small commercial drones. The rules requires unmanned drones must always be in sight of the operator.
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