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After months of testing among the thousand hills of Rwanda, a partnership involving a humanitarian healthcare shipper, a robotics company, the Rwandan government, and delivery and logistics group UPS has formally launched the world’s first national drone delivery service.
The ground-breaking Rwandan project – launched by President Paul Kagame – is said to have the potential to dramatically improve healthcare provision and logistics across the developing world.
The Rwandan government has begun using drones to make up to 150 on-demand, emergency deliveries per day of life-saving blood to 21 transfusing facilities located in the western half of the country.
The drones and delivery service are built and operated by Zipline, a California-based robotics company. While Rwanda’s drone delivery service will initially focus on blood, an international partnership between UPS, the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), and Zipline will help the country quickly expand the types of medicines and lifesaving vaccines that can be delivered.
In his speech President Kagame said: “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.”
Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo said: ““The inability to deliver life saving medicines to the people who need them the most causes millions of preventable deaths each year around the world. Zipline will help solve that problem once and for all. We’ve built an instant delivery system for the world, allowing medicine to be delivered on-demand and at low-cost, anywhere.”
The Rwandan programme allows blood transfusion clinics across the Western half of the country to place emergency orders by cell phone text message. During Rwanda’s lengthy rainy season, many roads in the region wash out, becoming impassible or non-existent. “The result is that all too often someone in need of a lifesaving transfusion cannot access the blood they need to survive,” Rinaudo said.
Orders from the clinics are received by Zipline at its at its distribution centre located in the country’s Muhanga region, where the company maintains a fleet of 15 drones, called Zips each of which can fly a round trip of up to 150km – even in wind and rain carrying 1.5kg of blood.
This is enough to save a person’s life. The Zips make deliveries by descending close to the ground and ‘air dropping’ medicine via a mini-parachute system to a designated spot called a ‘mailbox’ near the health centres they serve.
Zipline can make 50-150 emergency flights a day to 21 transfusion clinics across the region and fulfill orders in around 30 minutes. The drone service is expected expand to the Eastern half of the country in early 2017, putting almost every one of the country’s 11 million citizens within reach of instant delivery of lifesaving medicines.
Analysts say that the drone delivery solution could solve a problem commonly experienced throughout the developing world, where access to lifesaving and critical health products is hampered by ‘the last-mile problem’: the inability to deliver needed medicine from a city to rural or remote locations due to lack of adequate transport, communication and supply chain infrastructure.
At the launch the partners said that the project could save thousands of lives over the next three years, with Rwanda leading the world by using cutting-edge technology to leapfrog the absence of road infrastructure and to provide healthcare access to all its 11 million citizens.
The work was funded by a $1.1 million grant from the UPS Foundation whose logistics expertise and resources were expected to play a critical role in helping the partnership to expand the reach of this important work. It transported the entire Zipline system from California to Rwanda in record time in one of its cargo aircraft, helping to ensure Zipline’s distribution centre could be constructed in just four weeks.
“One of the most important focus areas for The UPS Foundation is to spark public-private partnerships that create powerful scale and drive demonstrable impact in support of global humanitarian aid and relief,” said Eduardo Martinez, president of The UPS Foundation and chief diversity and inclusion officer at UPS.
“The shared belief in the ability to save lives through applied innovation, combined with Rwanda’s vision, is now not only poised to advance humanitarian logistics – and logistics as we know it – around the world, but also to save lives. “Now is when our partnership between The UPS Foundation, Gavi and Zipline counts most, as we see the first operational missions dedicated to shipping lifesaving blood, and keep our eye on what the future can bring for other life-saving commodities, as well as for other parts of the world.”
Over the course of the next year, and with the support of the partnership with UPS and Gavi, Zipline plans to expand drone delivery services to countries across Africa.