Medical Deliveries by Drone Are Expanding

Medical Deliveries by Drone Are Expanding

drone deliveries

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Drones have been carrying out medical deliveries such as blood samples and vaccines successfully to remote sites in the developing world for some time. Now, a delivery service company is expanding its services in this field.

Zipline has partnered with the government of Tanzania regarding the delivery of a range of medical products by drone from four distribution sites in three distinct areas of the country. The project involves more than a 1,000 health facilities covering 10 million people in some of that country’s most remote and hard-to-reach areas.

While until now, the automated logistics firm has exclusively delivered blood products for use during transfusions, its Tanzania service, set to begin in early 2018, will include blood as well as emergency vaccines, medications for HIV and malaria, and emergency supplies like sutures and IV tubes.

These products will be delivered by an all-new fleet of fixed-wing drones, or “zips,” capable of hauling two kilograms of cargo and traveling 160 kilometers round-trip. According to Keller Rinaudo, Zipline’s CEO, delivery costs will be roughly on par with traditional means of transport.

In Tanzania, Rinaudo believes, the company’s on-demand model can dramatically improve delivery of products—like vaccines for rabies and tetanus and anti-venom for victims of snakebites—that depend on an uninterrupted temperature-controlled supply chain, known as a cold chain. Because these products are costly to keep and only sporadically in demand, they’re rarely stocked in rural areas. But when they are needed, someone’s life is in immediate danger, and deliveries by road often arrive too late, if at all. Drones, on the other hand, offer the best way to deliver such treatment in time.

According to, Zipline’s approach to more routine items, such as anti-malarials, anti-retrovirals, and other common drugs, will be slightly different. Here, the company will function as a “last line of defense” to supplement an existing supply chain. In particular, its drones will be available to respond to stock-outs—a common problem in Tanzania, as in much of the developing world, which may result from funding shortages, poor demand forecasting, or logistical bottlenecks.

In 2014, the company’s founders were both influenced by visits to the country as they looked for ways that Zipline, which was established as a more conventional robotics firm, could help save lives. Ultimately, Zipline launched in Rwanda first: Rwandan authorities were ready, and the country’s size was more manageable, as Rwanda could have a single hub to service nearly half the country; Tanzania is bigger.

They piloted the drone-delivery model with blood, a product that expires after 42 days in storage, must be kept refrigerated, and is frequently needed on an emergency basis. Since last October, Zipline drones have made more than 1,400 flights to deliver 2,600 units of blood to 12 Rwandan health facilities. Roughly three-quarters of the deliveries there are for routine restocking, and one-quarter are in response to emergencies.

A team composed of researchers from the University of Glasgow and Tanzania’s Ifakara Health Institute will evaluate the service’s impact in Tanzania.