This blog post was written by Sophie Allcock, with approval from Zipline.
Worldwide, millions of people die every year because they are unable to receive life-saving medicines and healthcare. This is often due to a lack of transportation options, particularly for people living in remote areas, due to poor supply chain infrastructure that is unable to support the delivery of medicines. This is known as “the last mile problem” and is experienced in both developed and developing countries.
With recent advances in drone technology, drone delivery services now present a solution to the last mile problem and East Africa is at the forefront of implementing these interventions. In 2016, Rwanda, in partnership with Zipline, launched the first national drone delivery service, delivering thousands of units of blood every day to 21 transfusing facilities across the country. Blood can be delivered to the facility within 30 minutes; a great improvement on the hours it used to take to collect blood from a regional centre.
There are many advantages of using Zipline and other drone technologies for delivery of emergency medical supplies in low-resource settings. These advantages include the ability to make a round trip without needing to recharge, so that delivery sites do not need to install and maintain infrastructure to support deliveries. Zipline drones also run on Lithium-ion battery packs with twin electric motors, making them environmentally friendly and low-cost. Delivery by drone is also able to circumvent many of the issues experienced when transporting cold chain products to and from remote and inaccessible areas, such as the need to keep products at the required temperature, without fluctuations, for long periods of time. Furthermore, drone deliveries are not affected by adverse weather conditions that can sometimes cause roads to become impassable.
Tanzania is next to utilise Zipline drones for the delivery of blood for transfusions, emergency vaccines, HIV medication and anti-malarials, and other emergency medical supplies. This is set to be the world’s largest national-level drone delivery network to date. In 2018, distribution centres will be set up in Dodoma, Mwanza, Lake Victoria and in the Southern Highlands. The centres will have the capacity to make 500 drone flights a day, covering up to 160 kilometer-round trips at 110 Km/h. Across Tanzania, this equates to up to 2,000 deliveries to over 1,000 health facilities a day, providing healthcare support to 10 million people.
The programme will be evaluated by researchers from the Ifakara Health Institute and the University of Glasgow, supported by the Human Development Impact Fund, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Saving Lives at Birth led by the US Agency for International Development. Through this programme, it is hoped that Tanzania will be able to improve access to essential medicines, particularly in the most remote and inaccessible areas of the country. The first drone flights will be launched from Dodoma in the first quarter of 2018, with the other three sites to be launched shortly after.
The success of the Zipline Rwanda programme highlights the suitability of drones for life-saving deliveries in low-resource settings, with the organisation looking forward to the use of drones expanding to Tanzania in 2018. Zipline’s long-term goal is to be able to provide rapid deliveries, sustainably on a global scale, and East Africa is leading the way.