From Weapon of War to Beacon of Hope

Drones will soon start delivering medical supplies to unreachable areas in Rwanda. It could spark the beginning of a revolution in technology and healthcare.
May 11, 2016 1:30 PM ET
Campaign: Thought Leadership

Brian Hughes | UPS Longitudes 

The following is based on an interview with Keller Rinaudo, the CEO of Zipline, a California-based robotics company that works with governments, private companies and public-private partners to provide reliable access to medical products at the last mile.

Imagine that you’re grocery shopping for your family. But you can only go to the store twice a year. And you don’t have a working refrigerator at home.

What do you do?

That’s just an average day for medical professionals throughout Africa. In an age of unprecedented technological leaps, they can’t get healthcare goods as soon as a need arises.

That’s because nearly all roads in large swaths of Africa become impassable during the rainy season. Vehicles carrying medical supplies often break down on the side of the road, forced to wait for help and unable to work around Mother Nature. In other areas, there simply aren’t any roads.

In many supply chains, half of all deliveries never make it to the final destination. The costs are so high that health facilities often opt for just a few deliveries a year.

In other words, don’t forget that milk at the grocery store. You might not go back for another six months.

Help never came

Health workers in Africa don’t get a do-over, either. They must anticipate the greatest needs in a community well before a patient walks through their doors. If a patient arrives at a clinic and needs a medical product that is out of stock, the clinic will usually turn that person away.

The problem here isn’t some head-scratching mystery. According to the World Health Organization, 5.9 million kids under the age of five died last year because they lacked access to basic medical products or care.

A researcher in Tanzania designed a text-alert system for hospitals to send out distress calls when a patient was at risk of dying. This researcher’s work provided a heartbreaking portrait of a typical day in the heart of Africa.

Among the many messages: A rabid dog bit a child. We need rabies prophylaxis. A woman who just gave birth is suffering from postpartum hemorrhaging. We need blood.

He had a database with thousands of similar stories. The messages kept piling up. Cellphones helped identify a clear need. However, help never came.

The health system knew in real time when someone was dying because that person didn’t have access to a basic medical product. But the other piece of the puzzle was still missing. That missing piece was logistics.

This is a classic story about the importance of logistical innovation. You can have the best intentions. You can have talented people committed to a noble cause. But if you can’t get items from Point A to Point B, you have a recipe for failure.

Luckily, there is a blueprint to break this logjam. Technology has finally caught up with our aspirations for bettering the world.

Drones bring hope

Roads were the biggest problem. So what if you could get around roads altogether?

The people at Zipline have backgrounds in building reliable robotics systems. They’ve seen first-hand how technology can make the impossible, possible. They knew there had to be a better way to deliver medical care to a region where lives depend on finding a better solution.

In February, the Rwandan government announced that they would begin using Zipline drones, which can make up to 150 deliveries of blood per day to 21 transfusing facilities located in the western half of the country.

On Monday, Zipline announced a partnership with UPS and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to explore using drones to transform the delivery of lifesaving medicines like blood and vaccines. The UPS Foundation awarded an $800,000 grant to support the initial launch of this initiative in Rwanda and extend the Rwandan government’s vision to countries across Africa.

This is a collective effort. Using its logistical expertise, UPS will contribute significant healthcare logistics experience to this lifesaving cause. Gavi will help identify communities that are most in need of aid. Because each partner plays to its strengths, the potential impact grows.

The drone network in Rwanda is devoted to delivering blood supplies, but this partnership plans to expand the initiative to include vaccines, treatments for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and many other essential and lifesaving medicines.

The (healing) power of the drone

Many in public health believe that better forecasting is the solution to stock-outs at hospitals and clinics.

But this will lead to incremental, not transformational, improvement. For context, many health centers now receive deliveries just twice a year. With the aid of a drone, we can conduct two deliveries a day to more than 100 health centers within range.

We’ve already seen technology enter environments lacking phones or even bank accounts. The technology has leapfrogged the absence of infrastructure to deliver extreme value for millions of people. The Rwandan government believes drones will do the same for Africa.

The incredible scale of smartphones has created this new supply chain, facilitating the affordable production of reliable robotics systems and autonomous airplanes. This makes it possible to build fast, efficient and affordable drones.

The Rwandan government’s vision could ensure that Rwanda’s 11 million citizens are within a 30-minute delivery of any essential medical product.

Guardians in the sky

Here’s how it works: Zipline builds hubs and unpiloted drone airplanes. Each hub can hold between 10 and 15 drones. Zipline places a hub next to an existing warehouse with strong access to essential medical products, enabling hundreds of deliveries to any location within range – and as soon as a request has been made.

When Zipline brings a health center online, they set up a mailbox, which is the size of three parking spaces. Packages are always delivered right into that mailbox. After a health worker places an order via text message, someone in the hub will find their medical product, load it into the electrically-powered vehicle and take the drone through pre-flight.

They’ll then set the drone on the launcher. After launch, the drone flies in a straight line directly to the health center, descends close to the ground and slowly drops the package safely in the mailbox.

Zipline had to design these drones so they could fly in severe wind and rain. That’s because people don’t wait for good weather to get sick or have a medical emergency. The company also designed a system based on commercial aviation reliability standards. These vehicles are far more dependable than the off-the-shelf, quad-copters deployed by hobbyists.

With the stakes so high, Zipline had to get the technology just right.

We don’t need roads

These kinds of automated solutions represent the future of logistics in the 21stcentury. Fast, urgent breakthroughs can augment existing logistics supply chains in a valuable way.

Rwanda doesn’t have the same level of resources as the United States or European nations. It’s emerging from a painful history of sectarian violence. And yet, Rwanda will become the first country to use this technology to improve healthcare and save lives on such a wide scale.

This small but innovative country is going to lead the world into the future. That’s a testament to not just the power of technology but also the people who find new ways to harness those innovative products.

We may never have a modern road network across Rwanda. But as Doc Brown, the innovator and scientist from “Back to the Future” might say: Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads. 

Brian Hughes is a writer and editor at Longitudes.

Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.