Autonomous drones, delivering blood transfusion supplies, emergency vaccines and other loads, have proven their purpose in Rwanda over the past two years. Zipline, the automated logistics company based in California that runs the operation, is now looking to expand its business to other countries on the continent, such as Tanzania.
From the front yard of small hospital in a remote part of Rwanda, you can hear a buzz coming closer. Over the dense forest, a small white aircraft appears. Hospital staff watches how a small package is released on a parachute. Moments later, when the drone has already headed back to its base, there is a bump on the grass. HIV medications, antimalarials, antibiotics have been delivered, ready to do its life-saving work for patients.
First national drone delivery
We have just witnessed the world’s first national drone delivery operation that Zipline developed for delivering lifesaving medicine to the world’s most difficult to reach places. In October of 2016, the government of Rwanda contracted Zipline to establish a distribution center with 15 drones to deliver blood, plasma and platelets to 21 hospitals across the western half of the country. Since launching the service in Rwanda, Zipline has flown 450,000 km, delivering 12,000 units of blood over 6,000 flights, approximately a third of which have been in emergency life-saving situations.
The company is now delivering more than 20% of Rwanda’s blood supply outside of the capital, Kigali. In addition to its impact on lifesaving emergency situations, Zipline’s drone delivery service has helped transform the country’s medical supply chain. To date, instant drone delivery has helped ensure that hospitals always have access to important blood products. Zipline is in the process of opening its second distribution center in Rwanda, which will help bring the entire country within range of its life-saving service.
Cost, efficiency, waste
The drone activities are part of a commercial operation with clear benefits, says Zipline’s spokesman Justin Hamilton. “We contract with the national health system and are paid per delivery. There are time-based benefits of our on-demand emergency delivery service. Another important aspect is the effect of the service on cost, efficiency and waste. Since launching the service in Rwanda we’ve been able to decrease the amount of blood hospitals keep in stock while increasing access to some rare blood products by 164% and reducing blood waste to zero.”
Fastest delivery drone on earth
Meanwhile, Zipline is taking things further. In April, the company unveiled what it calls ‘the fastest commercial delivery drone on earth’. The new delivery vehicle is an autonomous fixed-wing style airplane. The plane is capable of flying at a top speed of 128 km/h, and a cruising speed of 101 km/h—21 km/h faster than the previous generation of aircraft—with a round trip range of 160 kilometers carrying up to 1.75 kilos of cargo. The new plane is capable of flying four times faster than the average quadcopter drone and can serve an area 200 times as large. The improvements will decrease the amount of time between Zipline’s receipt of an order and launch of a fulfilment flight from 10 minutes to 1, increase the number of daily delivery flights that each Zipline distribution center can make from 50 to 500, and expand the radius of each distribution center to serve populations of up to 10 million people.
2,000 deliveries per day
The drone solution is getting noticed by African governments and health service organizations. Zipline and the government of Tanzania plan to use drone delivery for blood transfusion supplies, emergency vaccines, HIV medications, antimalarials, antibiotics, lab reagents, and basic surgical supplies. The scale of the operation will be capable of making up to 2,000 life-saving deliveries per day to over one thousand health facilities, serving 10 million people across the country.
Justin Hamilton: “Our operation in Rwanda has shown the world what’s possible. And we are talking to countries across Africa and the world who want to follow in their footsteps.”