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(Ed. Note: This post is part of Innovate4Health, a joint project of GMU’s Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation providing case studies on how IP-driven innovation is tackling some of the world’s toughest health issues.)
Rwanda’s government, which has declared a vision of making the country a technology and innovation hub for Africa, has partnered with the startup Zipline to facilitate the real-time delivery of urgent medical supplies, such as blood or vaccines, to patients in remote locations via drones. In doing so, Rwanda became the first African country to author regulations integrating drones into its airspace and to begin regular operations to deliver medical supplies via unmanned aerial vehicles.
Zipline’s fixed-wing drones, called “Zips,” began operations in October 2016 out of the Zipline Muhanga Distribution Center, providing initial service to Rwanda’s Kabgayi District Hospital. The Zips, which have a 75-kilometer service radius and can carry 1.5 kilograms of payload per sortie and can operate in all-weather conditions, facilitate the real-time delivery of essential medical supplies, seamlessly flying over treacherous terrain in as little as 30 minutes that it traditionally took as much as four hours to cover in a vehicle (when roads weren’t washed out by frequent torrential rans).
Zipline now serves 21 Rwandan hospitals nationwide and, as of May 2017, Zipline has completed over 350 delivery flights, with deliveries now averaging more than 20 per week. In total, Zipline’s drones provide instant access to life-saving blood products for over 8 million Rwandans, nearly two-thirds of the country’s total population of 12 million.
The drone-delivery platform has saved lives and improved quality of life for hundreds of Rwandans. As Espoir Kajibwami, a surgeon who previously served as Kabgayi’s medical director, noted, “Before, it was a serious problem to have blood when we needed it,” explaining that, in emergency cases, the hospital would often send the patient to the national referral hospital in Kigali rather than wait for blood to arrive. Kajibwami cited a case in which a woman began hemorrhaging after surgery to remove an ectopic pregnancy and the ability to immediately contact Zipline for an emergency blood delivery (with the correct blood type for the patient) may have been the difference between the patient’s life and death. Beyond such dramatic instances, the service enables remote, regional clinics to see more patients in the field (saving patients long commutes to larger medical centers) and also frees up time for staff to perform their duties.
While Zipline started with a focus on blood deliveries (including blood units of all types, platelets, fresh frozen plasma, and cryoprecipitate), as Jonathan Rosen writes in “Zipline’s Ambitious Medical Drone Delivery in Africa,” in the MIT Technology Review, Zipline’s future plans in Rwanda include scaling up to a much wider range of medical products, including: emergency rabies vaccines; drugs treating HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria; contraceptives; and diagnostic testing kits. As Rosen continues, what Zipline really makes possible is a far more agile, more adaptable supply chain—for blood and durable products like medicines alike—in which fewer items must be kept at last-mile facilities, thus minimizing waste and ensuring availability. Moreover, the ability to deliver these supplies rapidly and in real time also enables facilities to access products with shorter shelf lives or unique storage requirements and even promotes the use of medicines (such as blood clotting agents) that were previously underutilized because they were too difficult to store at remote health facilities.
Throughout the developing world more than two billion individuals lack adequate access to essential medical products, from blood and vaccines to medicines and medical products, due in part to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure. Technology-based innovations such as near-real-time drone delivery can play an important role in getting a wide variety of medical goods to patients living in remote agents on a timely and cost-competitive basis (especially over time, as sorties increase and costs per delivery falls). Zipline plans to launch soon in other African nations, such as Tanzania. Elsewhere, the UN Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has explored the feasibility of using drones to transport the HIV test samples of newborn babies in Malawi. While the opportunities are seemingly limitless, the case of Zipline highlights the importance of forward-thinking policy leadership on the part of the Rwandan government to create the conditions in which drone operations can flourish, in part in response to pressing medical needs. It’s another example of innovation improving access to medicines and improving lives for citizens in the developing world.