US ROBOTIC company Zipline, have become the first company who use drones to distribute medical supplies to remote health centres.

The Rwandan based service allows the quick delivery of donated blood to areas which were either hard to reach or completely inaccessible with land based vehicles.

Health workers use their phones to request a drone, the blood is loaded, then a slingshot is used to fire the battery powered drone into the air.

It uses a GPS locator to get to its location. When it arrives the staff will receive a text telling them to go outside, and the aircraft will release the supplies via parachute.

The leading cause of death of pregnant women in Rwanda is due to blood loss after giving birth. This could significantly be reduced as the aerial vehicle reaches its destination within 30 minutes, something which used to take hours.

Rwanda’s government pays for each Zipline delivery, where there could be between 50 and 150 a day and each one costs around the same as the previous motorbike service.

The UPS Foundation, the charity branch of the delivery giant, invested $1.1 million into researching drones and how they could be used for different medicines and in other countries.

Professor Andy Miah, who is the Global Director for the Centre for Policy and Emerging Technologies said: “I think what’s happened with drones over the past few years has been extraordinary.

“The technology’s incredibly effective, it’s become more powerful, the flight times are longer, the carrying capacities are greater and they’ve become much more autonomous.

“You can actually just draw a flight path for a drone and it goes off and flies and does it itself, so all those things combined make it an incredibly appealing apparatus for any kind of delivery system.

“People are using it in all sorts of ways. To capture data, to send things to each other and even to create new artwork, so I think it’s a platform for all kinds of experimentation at the moment.”

zipline locations
The Rwanda delivery sites. Credit: Zipline

He believes drones could be used in a similar way in the UK as they have in Rwanda, but safety needs to be a top priority, he stated: “There’s a real challenge in using drones in built up areas, and at the moment the civil aviation authority is trying to figure out how to deal with that.

“Amazon is pushing for commercial drone delivery at the moment and trying out things in the UK and the US so I think there is a good chance we’ll see drone delivery systems here in the UK very soon, but we have to find out how to really deal with the safety issues.”

In May a drone narrowly missed a passenger plane in Manchester airport when it was in a critical phase of taking off.

Professor Miah think they can be dangerous, but companies have been working on ways to make them as safe as possible.

“They are a high risk technology, but they have improved dramatically over the last couple of years, and I think that’s what’s staggering about it. If you were to buy one four years ago then there’s a good chance it would just fly off,” he said.

“At the moment people are working on collision avoidance technology so if it does get close to something or someone, then it avoids flying into it.

“The technology behind it is similar to technology that goes into cars and other vehicles, and of course it’s a multibillion dollar industry so in some respects drones are amongst the best kind of vehicles out there.”

Zipline’s service is still in its early stages, but they are currently using up to 15 “zips” a day to deliver blood to desperate patients.


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