How Drones Are Aiding Humanitarian Efforts in Rural Communities

Autonomous vehicles are saving lives in rural communities by delivering blood and other health products in under 30 minutes.

When seven month-old Noella developed severe malarial anemia, doctors in her hospital in Rwanda urgently needed blood. As soon as they realized that hospital did not have a match for her blood type, they ordered its delivery via a drone. Within a few minutes, a small, unmanned 20-pound electric drone parachuted a red, shoebox-sized container into a designated landing zone near the hospital’s health center.

The company responsible for this drone‚ and many others is called Zipline, a San Francisco-based drone delivery system startup. With over two billion people worldwide in danger of death or major harm due to a lack of access to essential medicines, Zipline’s mission is to bring urgent medical materials to people no matter where they live.

The process takes place in five easy steps: Health workers request medical supplies via text, on demand. From Zipline’s various distribution centers—where red blood cells, platelets, plasma, and other health products are stored in a refrigerated room—employees package materials and prepare them for flight.Flying at 68 miles per hour, these drones deliver blood and other health products in under 30 minutes, then return to the distribution center. After a change of battery, the drones are ready to take off again and deliver plastic sachets of blood for surgeries, complicated childbirths, and many other lifesaving functions.

While the story of drones being used for humanitarian efforts is ultimately one of saving lives, it is also one of technology.

Mobile and Drone Tech: Combining Forces

For co-founder Keller Rinaudo, Zipline was an intuitive solution to a common problem. “The inability to deliver lifesaving medicines to the people who need them the most causes millions of preventable deaths each year around the world,” Rinaudo explained.

In Tanzania, for example, while innovations in mobile technology in the early 2010s allowed health workers to request emergency medicines and vaccines via text, a large number of patients in this database died because their requests were not filled in time.

For Rinaudo and his co-founders, Will Hetzler and Keenan Wyrobek, this “database of death” was alarming—and preventable with the right technological infrastructure. In 2014, Zipline combined a mobile alert system with drone delivery capabilities, delivering medicine and blood to people who need it—in time for it to save their lives.

In its first year of (joint) operation, Zipline organized 2,000 flights—totaling over 62,000 miles and delivering 4,000 units of blood. Now forging partnerships with the UPS Foundation and Gavi, a vaccine fund backed by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Zipline is expanding to countries across East Africa.

In early 2018, the Tanzanian Government will use drones to make up to 2,000 deliveries every day. The government initiative plans to cover over one thousand health facilities—and 10 million people—throughout the country.

In accordance with Zipline’s current offerings, the deal will provide on-demand delivery of blood transfusion supplies, emergency vaccines, HIV medications, anti-malarials and critical medical supplies like sutures and IV tubes to clinics that often run out of stock.

Taking Flight in the U.S.

Zipline is not the only company using unpiloted autonomous vehicles to ferry medical supplies to hospitals and health centers. Drones now seem poised to take off in the U.S., too, with a growing number of humanitarian drone networks delivering domestic supplies.

In October 2017, Nevada-based automated logistics startup, Flirteypartnered with Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority (REMSA) to launch its defibrillator drone delivery service, bringing people in rural Nevada immediate access to critical medical supplies. The company plans to dispatch a drone to deliver an Automated External Defibrillator (AED)—a portable electronic device that delivers a shock to restore normal heart rhythm—whenever a 911 caller in the area reports symptoms of cardiac arrest.

According to researchers from Sweden-based Center for Resuscitation Science, drones carrying defibrillators have the ability to shave precious minutes off of response time and increase the patient’s chance of survival. In a trauma simulation, the center found that drones saved an average of 16 minutes off of defibrillator delivery time compared to ambulances. Based on data from the American Heart Association, for every minute a victim of cardiac arrest waits to receive defibrillation, their odds of survival decrease by 7 to 10 percent.

This is not the first time that Flirtey will use drones to deliver healthcare packages in the U.S. Last year, it made the first Federal Aviation Administration-approved drone delivery in a rural area in Virginia, dropping off emergency supplies to a health clinic. The company has also tested the delivery of medicine in understocked parts of Appalachia.

“[Lifesaving aid] is one of the most important uses of drone delivery technology, and we believe that by democratizing access to this lifesaving aid, our technology will save more than a million lives over the decades to come.”

— Matthew Sweeny, CEO, Flirtey

Airborne Ambulances

While Flirtey is ready to experiment with medical supply drone deliveries, many other technology companies are waiting on a favorable regulatory environment to fly their drones in the U.S. Strict regulations, such as keeping drones within operators’ visual line of sight, restrict commercial applications in the U.S.

As companies from Flirtey to Amazon work on getting Federal Aviation Administration approvals to loosen its restrictions on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—drones—Flirtey will in the meantime launch a public education campaign focused on integrating emergency drone AED delivery into the American public.

“We have the ability to deliver lifesaving aid into the hands of people who need it,” Flirtey CEO Matthew Sweeny said. “Why aren’t we as a society doing it already? This is one of the most important uses of drone delivery technology, and we believe that by democratizing access to this lifesaving aid, our technology will save more than a million lives over the decades to come.”

Although it might take a few rounds of technology and regulations updates, Sweeny promises to soon build a future where seeing a drone in the air will be as common as seeing an ambulance on the road.