Drones are delivering vital vaccines and other medicines in Ghana

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Drones are delivering critical vaccines, blood, and other life-saving medicines to remote parts of Ghana via a startup called Zipline.

In the effort, the California-based company, which is expanding its existing network of unmanned aerial vehicles beyond Rwanda to Ghana, is also partnering with global vaccine alliance company Gavi, the social arm of UPS, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and bio-pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

It is hard for those who are living in remote rural areas to access vital vaccines and other medicines. Therefore, Gavi is using the autonomous delivery service to reach people in these places and fulfill its ongoing humanitarian mission to vaccinate millions of underserved children.

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Reaching a Goal and Closing the Gap

As drone technology evolves, drone enthusiasts, commercial companies, and other organizations use the airborne crafts in a variety of applications.

For example, backyard hobbyists fly drones for fun and an Australian coffee shop is delivering hot coffee to residential customers via Alphabet’s Wing subsidiary. Plus, Amazon aims to use drones to offer a 30-minute delivery service, and firefighters are using them to combat fires.

Overall, delivering life-saving medicines to impoverished communities may be the most important drone endeavor yet.

Head of innovation at Gavi, Moz Siddiqui, told the MIT Technology Review, “We set a target in 2015 to vaccinate an additional 300 million children by 2020, and we have achieved 86% of this, but the last 14% are the hardest to reach—they live in remote areas, urban slums, or their parents are too burdened to follow up with repeat doses. We’re hoping that drone delivery will help close this gap.”

On-Demand Delivery

Many mothers must walk miles through tough terrain to get to the nearest medical facility to have their children vaccinated. In these cases, having enough medicine to give to all who need it is even more critical.

Thankfully, Zipline drones provide on-demand delivery in a nearly-instant response. According to MIT, one nurse placed an order for six vaccines via a toll-free text message. Fifteen minutes later, a drone swooped overheard, opened its hatch, and dropped a vaccine-filled parcel down via a wax-paper parachute.

This kind of fast turnaround beats trucking or biking in medicine, which could take hours. It also reduces emissions generated by traditional transportation methods.

Life-Saving Solutions in Variable Conditions

Postpartum hemorrhaging is the leading cause of death for pregnant women in Rwanda. Furthermore, roads get washed out in the mountainous region and are impassable during rainy season. If someone urgently needs a blood transfusion and can’t get access to blood, they could die.

Fortunately, Zipline drones can fly through all kinds of terrain in all sorts of weather—rain or shine. This makes delivering life-saving solutions in challenging conditions possible.

In its initial 2016 rollout, the service made 50-150 emergency flights a day to 21 transfusion clinics scattered across the western half of Rwanda. The network eventually spread across most of the country.

Zipline drones fly the distance around the earth every seven days. To date, the company has made about 13,000 deliveries at a rate of 500 per day from each of its Rwanda distribution centers. This translates to delivering about one ton of medicine and blood products to patients each day.

Once an order is placed, a drone delivers medical supplies within 30 minutes. After a payload drops, the drone flies back to the distribution center and docks itself until a new order arrives.

Expansion into Ghana

Gavi recently announced support for expanding Zipline’s medical drone network into Ghana.

“The ability of the government to supplement routine immunization on demand will allow us to make sure that there will always be enough life-saving vaccines for every child in Ghana,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance in a statement. “This is an exciting development for Gavi that is ultimately going to ensure we leave no one behind and help us protect more children living in remote areas against vaccine-preventable diseases,” he added.

The innovative service will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week from four distribution centers. Each facility will be equipped with 30 drones and will deliver to over 2,000 health facilities serving 12 million people across the country.

The newly-expanded system is currently the world’s largest vaccine drone delivery network. As Zipline seeks to increase its global reach, making this kind of life-saving impact on future generations is priceless.