Drones Saving Lives

In Current Events, Global Perspectives, Maps101 by

Drones are small, remote-controlled aircraft. Now a California technology company and the country of Rwanda are using these to get medical supplies to remote places.

Drones are small, remote-controlled aircraft. A California-based technology company and the country of Rwanda are working together to use them to get medical supplies to hard-to-reach places.

If you’re feeling sick, relief can be as close as a visit to a school nurse, a family doctor, or a local hospital. Unfortunately, many people in the world may have a very hard time getting treatment when they’re sick. One reason is that some live too far away from the medical supplies they need.

California-based engineer Keenan Wyrobek learned about this problem firsthand on a trip to Africa. When visiting the African country Tanzania, he learned of a troubling problem: people were dying from illnesses that are easily treatable. The problem wasn’t a lack of doctors or nurses. The medical personnel Wyrobek spoke to said that although they knew how to treat sick patients, they couldn’t get the medicine, blood for transfusions, or other supplies they needed quickly enough. The supplies were either too far away, or the roads needed to transport supplies were too damaged.

“We had heard how challenging running a high-reliability supply chain was in these countries that are close to the equator,” Wyrobek explains. “They have long rainy seasons, predominantly dirt roads, and a lack of bridges.”

Wyrobek wondered if he could figure out a way to help these patients. Luckily, Wyrobek, who has a PhD in engineering from Stanford University, already had experience with medical technology. He was able to use his science smarts to come up with a solution.

Wyrobek co-founded a company called Zipline. Zipline builds small remote-controlled aircraft called drones. These drones are used to deliver medical supplies to places too hard to reach by road.

Zips to the Rescue!

Currently, Zipline is delivering blood to hospitals in the African country of Rwanda. Zipline and Rwanda began their service on October 13. Rwanda’s fleet of Zipline-built drones is based at a port in Muhanga, located about 30 miles west of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.

The drones, or Zips as they have been nicknamed, resemble tiny airplanes. Each has a six-foot wingspan. The Zips are powered by battery and weigh about 30 pounds each. They can travel up to 100 miles at a time. The Zips can carry about three pounds of supplies, which weighs about as much as three bags of blood. They can fly as fast as 45 miles per hour. Each drone can make up to 150 deliveries per day.

Getting Medicine to the Sick

A major problem in Africa according to the World Health Organization is maternal mortality. In some cases, women who give birth can start hemorrhaging, a type of heavy bleeding that is very difficult to stop. In a big city that has enough medical supplies, these patients could be saved easily by being given fresh blood through a blood transfusion.

Another health problem in Africa is malaria. Malaria is a disease caused by parasites carried by mosquitoes. People can become infected by these parasites if they are bitten by mosquitoes who carry them. Malaria is common in places close to the equator. Children who contract malaria can develop a complication called anemia. People who have anemia do not have enough red blood cells in their blood. Giving anemic patients blood transfusions can save their lives.

The Rwandan government was especially concerned about deaths related to maternal mortality and malaria. Since both of these conditions can be treated with blood transfusions, it is no surprise that the Zips’ first assignment was to deliver blood to 21 hard-to-reach clinics in western Rwanda.

Rwanda's medical delivery program can deliver important medical supplies to hospitals in remote areas of the country that are hard to access by road.

Rwanda’s drone delivery program delivers important medical supplies by air to hospitals like these in remote areas. These hospitals can be difficult to reach by road.

Plans for the Future

Wyrobek from Zipline thinks the Rwandan drone service has been very effective so far.

“It’s going really well,” Wyrobek says. “We’re in a mode now where we’re adding hospitals every week and expanding the operations.”

The Zips have been getting attention around the world. Dr. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, recently toured Rwanda’s drone port. He was impressed.

“Zipline actually built these planes and they fly ten times faster than typical drones that you see and they are able to deliver blood anywhere from about 10 to 15 U.S. dollars per unit delivery which is without a question affordable,” Dr. Kim says. “It should just be in every country in the world.”

Next, Zipline and the Rwandan government want to expand the types of medical supplies the Zips deliver.

“We’re really excited about delivering vaccines and pharmaceuticals to health clinics and also to what are called village health workers—typically they’re a mother or grandmother in a village trained in a handful of very common challenges,” Wyrobek explains. “We can be a huge part in making sure they are always stocked with what they need, regardless of how remote that village is.”

Wyrobek hopes that this medical delivery service can one day expand from Rwanda to wherever in the world it is needed.

“We’re really excited about how we’ll eventually operate tens and hundreds and, hopefully, thousands of distribution centers and try to just completely solve this last leg of delivery in developing countries everywhere,” he says.

Additional Resources

Read more about Zipline and Rwanda’s medical drone program at National Geographic and Ugandan newspaper The Independent.

Learn more about the problem of maternal mortality at the World Health Organization.

See a timeline of how blood transfusions have saved lives at the Red Cross.

Additional Resources

Drone Delivery photo: Zipline
Drone Delivery photo license: Public domain

Rwanda Hospital photo: Zipline
Rwanda Hospital photo license: Public domain