Special Delivery: The Drones that Save Lives

By Akudo McGee 5 Min Read

In the West the need for blood is apparent. Blood donation booths are set up in schools, churches and at community events frequently because donors are always needed. In the United States alone, the American Red Cross estimates that every two seconds someone needs blood and that approximately 36,000 units of red blood cells are needed daily.

Once collected, the blood is almost immediately chilled, stored for use and driven to a facility where it can be kept for up to 3-6 weeks.

This practice works well to minimize blood waste and ensure that blood supplies go to those who need it most but what if that wasn’t the case? What if scarcity wasn’t the issue, but rather distance? What if there was blood to save lives but no way to transport it to clinics and hospitals? It may sound unfathomable to many of us but it’s a real problem in many parts of the world where unreliable transportation and remotely located clinics mean that medical staff is often stranded without blood to treat patients.

Zipline, a Silicon Valley-based robotics company founded by Keenan Wyrobek
is looking to change that. Using a fleet of drones to deliver blood to clinics across Rwanda, they are able to bypass obstacles for traditional transportation like mountainous regions, flooded roads, and dense traffic.

Their drones, which weigh less than 30 pounds and can travel up to 93 miles are propelled by catapult and land gently with their lifesaving supplies using, of course, biodegradable parachutes. Most importantly, the drones arrive sun or shine; inclement weather is no barrier for saving lives. Zipline is able to make up to 500 deliveries a day in 30 minutes or less, operates 24/7 and can carry up to 1.5 kg (a little over 3 lbs) of supplies per flight.

How does it all work? Health workers at remote clinics and hospitals can send a request for blood on demand by text. Zipline then packs and stores the blood at its distribution center and a drone is sent out. Once the blood is on its way a confirmation text is sent to the requester and they wait for the drone to drop off supplies in a designated drone parking area. Once the supplies are collected, the drone will take off, make one stop at the distribution center and then be sent home until the next delivery is requested.

Keller Rinaudo, CEO of the company, says that the Rwandan government pays for the service, per delivery. This means that a sustainable business model is created instead of encouraging an unsustainable charity model in the country.

Zipline drones do not need to be docked for tune-ups or refueling so there is no need to install additional infrastructure. All the drone needs is a map of the delivery area and 2 days to survey the area. It can even be transferred to a new area without additional set up. It runs on lithium-ion battery packs and twin electric motors which means that it costs less is environmentally friendly and reliable. Though professionals operate drones remotely, no one is needed on site to man the drones so they don’t require additional staff to be available for delivery.

Impact: Rwanda uses about 650,000 units of blood per year. Of that blood use, approximately 50% of it is to treat mothers suffering from postpartum bleeding and 1/3 is for children suffering from complications of malaria-like anemia. In addition to delivering supplies to remote hospitals, Zipline is also able to deliver rare blood, not normally kept in stock for hospitals that do store blood.

In 2018 the company hopes to expand to Zimbabwe as well. Zipline plans to move beyond delivering blood supplies and eventually deliver, among other things anti-venoms, vaccines, and rabies treatments.

Once they work with regulatory bodies in the United States, they also plan to expand to the US. They will remain focused on medical supply delivery, for instance, delivering vaccines and emergency medical supplies to rural areas that are harder to reach. Their goal is to close the gap caused by physical barriers that create distance between lifesaving products and the people who need them.


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