in Features

Zipping to the rescue

Posted 11 December 2019 · Add Comment

Thousands of lives are being saved in west Africa thanks to Zipline, the world’s first commercial drone delivery service.

In 2014, Californian start-up company, Zipline, launched with a big mission – to provide ‘every human on Earth’ with access to vital medical supplies via the world’s fastest and most reliable delivery drone.
Three years ago, the company launched its first operation in Muhanga, a district in Rwanda, with the help of the Rwandan Government.
“We were looking for a country that had the kinds of problems we were trying to solve,” explained Dan Czerwonka, head of global regulatory affairs at Zipline.
“We needed a country with a regulatory framework that would let us fly nationwide, plus we were looking for a customer and partner to try this service. Rwanda was perfect. It is probably the leading tech-savvy and forward-thinking country in Africa.”
The company works closely with Rwanda’s Civil Aviation Authority, the Ministry of Health, and the National Centre for Blood Transfusion.
Rwanda is known as the ‘land of a thousand hills’ due to its landscape. It has 3,000 miles of road, of which only 25% is paved. Much of the road system can get washed away during rainy seasons, making transportation difficult, particularly for urgent medical supplies, like blood, to outlying hospitals and clinics.
“This was the whole idea behind Zipline and it was a no-brainer problem-solver for the Rwandan Government,” said Czerwonka.
Today, remote clinics can place orders for lifesaving blood via text message, with drones dispatched from fulfilment centres dotted around the country.
Since its launch, Zipline drones have flown more than 10,000 missions, covering in excess of 300,000 miles, delivering thousands of units of blood.
In addition to Muhanga, Zipline also operates from its second Rwandan base in the eastern province of Kayonza. The two facilities serve around 98% of the country.
Czerwonka said: “Dozens of hospitals and health facilities in Rwanda now rely on Zipline’s vital service to improve patient care. Our drones now cover the country, giving doctors instant access to critical medical products, like blood and vaccines, that were previously out of reach. Within half-an-hour, medical centres can receive what they need, as opposed to what could be up to five hours over rugged terrain via a truck.”
So how do the drones and the delivery process work?
“We have fully stocked laboratories, including blood banks,” said Czerwonka. “By holding the critical products centrally, all the hospitals can have equal access to the blood when needed. This helps eliminates waste.
“About a third of the deliveries are for emergencies, two thirds are re-supply.”
The facilities receive an order from a medical centre via WhatsApp.
“We then pack the order on to the drone, which has no pilot and is battery-powered, reducing both cost and emissions,” explained Czerwonka.
“We are then in touch with air traffic control to get permission to launch and, once granted, the drone races off at more than 100kmh using automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) technology. It is tracked as it flies at 500 feet and, once at the right destination, it descends, opens a set of doors in its belly, and drops a package that parachutes to the ground. The drone immediately begins to climb and return back to base as a hospital member collects the package.”
The drones only land at Zipline’s distribution centre, where operators quickly prepare them for their next flight.
“We’ve refined this process to support hundreds of deliveries per day, per distribution centre, in all weather conditions.”
Czerwonka said the drones don’t use cameras, ensuring that there are no surveillance worries.
“We limit the drone capability options for safety,” said Czerwonka. “We can tell the aircraft to go into a holding pattern, then we can tell it to come home, and thirdly to pull the parachute to land – that’s all.”
With such huge success seen in Rwanda, other African nations having been taking a keen interest in Zipline, and the company has now expanded its operations into Ghana.
“In April, we opened our first distribution centre in Ghana, a west African democracy of 29 million people,” said Czerwonka.
“We are expanding to provide most of the country’s population with access to any medical products they need, with four distribution centres spanning from the dense southern regions surrounding the capital, Accra, to the remote and arid north of the country.”
The four facilities should prove cost-effective to Ghana’s Government over the next four years, when the service will be available to more than 2,000 health centres across the country.
President Akufo-Addo opened the first of the four centres and said: “No one in Ghana should die because they can’t access the medicine they need in an emergency. We must do everything within our means to ensure that each and every citizen has access to the quality healthcare they deserve.”

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