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Drone Delivery of Lifesaving Medical Supplies

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Zipline, a California based robotics company, has demonstrated huge potential in Rwanda. The question remains whether they, or companies similar to them, will be able to impact healthcare delivery at large in remote areas. Designed to allow public health care systems to make deliveries of critical medical supplies when other avenues of access are unavailable, Zipline has partnered with the United States Postal Service and the Ministry of Rwanda in order to deliver blood with their fixed-wing drones.

Rwanda’s lack of infrastructure along with a relatively high rate of postpartum hemorrhage made them a prime candidate to test this on-demand blood delivery. The fatality rate of postpartum hemorrhage is 15 times higher in Rwanda than it is in the United States. Additionally, the strict temperature requirements of blood coupled with the lack of a reliable supply chain means that these deaths are often a result of women not receiving blood in time for a transfusion.

Orders are received via text message or cell phone call and delivery hubs can fulfill 100 drops each day. Once the operator packs the order a QR code is scanned providing a route to the drone. The drone then flies automatically and drops the payload within a designated zone which is the size of three parking spaces.

This service could easily expand to other developing countries that experience high fatality rates from due to a lack of medical supplies caused by missing or compromised supply lines. Additional future applications of this technology may include global vaccination campaigns, disaster relief deliveries and humanitarian assistance operations.

Will drone delivery of critical medical supplies extend beyond developing countries and disaster situations in the developed world? Is there a place for drone delivery in an area where supply routes are established and clear? The value is clear when the drone can deliver blood days faster than any other method, but how does one determine when drone delivery is adding value or increasing patient outcomes? Does getting blood to a patient 5 or 10 minutes earlier justify the additional cost? As this method of delivery becomes available it will be interesting to watch how other stakeholders in the world of healthcare respond.

8 thoughts on “Drone Delivery of Lifesaving Medical Supplies

  1. This is a very interesting concept. While reading this article and your commentary, I could not help but wonder how do they keep the blood a certain temperature while in transit? With blood spoiling in route to the patient, there would still be great waste with no increase of efficacy among the population. Also, if the startup could pull this off successfully, I wonder if it would have the effect of decreasing the cost of care. There may be less blood spoiling, but the cost of maintaining a drone fleet would undoubtedly be pricey.

  2. Really cool article Rebecca. The medical supply chain in the developing world (including vaccines, basic medicines, blood, etc) has been a perpetual challenge in terms of delivery healthcare even at the most basic levels. (This has been a really interesting topic that I’ve worked on while as a consultant in conjunction with GAVI and the Gates Foundation) Tom, to your point the cold chain aspect of the medical supply chain is a particular challenge.

    In this case the just-in-time nature of the blood delivery makes it well suited for a “pull” system configuration using drones as the delivery technology. However, with more routine or basic supplies (such as vaccines) which will require cold chain storage upon delivery this type of model will face continued challenges (as cold chain at health posts at the lowest level of the health system perpetually struggle with functioning cold chain equipment, reliable electricity to power cold chain, etc).

    Am excited to see how this technology continue to develop and how on-the-ground cold chains will interface with new aerial delivery systems!

  3. Interesting topic. As other comments have highlighted, I am curious to see how Zipline is able to overcome temperature requirements while safely transporting supplies. However, I’d be excited to see a partnership arise from perhaps renewable energy companies attempting to create a self-sufficient silo’ed power grid that incorporates infrastructure for cold storage and charging of drones. Also, Zipline’s efforts perhaps benefit from a less than robust regulations that are currently creating friction for drone delivery to take off in the US and other more developed countries.

  4. Building on top of previous comments, there are interesting implications for this in the US as well. For instance, say someone is out on a hiking trip w/o life saving medication or equipment (ex. epipen for anaphylaxis), they could request the supplies as needed. The proposal would encounter some reimbursement questions, but interesting potential both in the US and abroad.

  5. Great article, Rebecca. While the article focuses on use cases in the developing world, I feel like this technology could be utilized to cover gaps in US healthcare as well. I’m sure there would be significant regulatory hurdles (e.g. identity verification, etc.), but I think the technology might be useful in providing patients and providers in rural areas with a level of pharmacy access that they might not have at the moment; thereby driving better med adherence and better overall outcomes. This, in combination with other technologies like telemedicine could help to ameliorate the shortages of GPs, psychiatrists, and pharmacists, that hit rural areas the hardest.

  6. This is a really interesting topic. I think supplying medical equipment by using drones can be an example of reverse innovation, in which innovation happens in emerging markets, then it finds its application in developing markets, as well. As you mentioned, supplying medical equipment in emergent situations, such as natural disaster, can be a potential application, as infrastructure and supply chain are destroyed even in developed countries. I see many negative news about drones, but this application showed that the drone technology can bring positive impact in our society. I’m looking forward to seeing how Zipline develops from now on.

  7. This is going to be a fascinating space. My colleague at Mayo Clinic recently published a related article that received quite a bit of press. Also, one of our classmates is currently working with a company called Matternet that just announced a partnership with Mercedes-Benz for mobile launch and recovery to decrease en route flight time of individual deliveries. Definitely worth checking out.

  8. What an interesting concept, Rebecca. I’m curious to know whether drone technology can be used to deliver other important health supplies that have a complex supply delivery chain requiring refrigeration (e.g. vaccines), but that do not require urgent, on-demand delivery. Or would it be too cost-prohibitive in these cases? How ingenious to use cell phones to order blood on-supply as well. Having spent a year in Tanzania, what most impressed me was how ubiquitous cell phones are. Even in remote areas that lack running water or reliable electricity, everyone had a mobile phone. In addition to ordering medical supplies, perhaps we could also leverage cell phones to monitor patients with chronic diseases, provide telemedicine appointments, etc.

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