By Tiffany Pham
Whether used as high-tech toys, weapons of war, or eyes in the sky for videography, drones have demonstrated much versatility and potential. These aerial machines have expanded the limits of technology and the parameters of industrial science. It comes as no surprise, then, that drones have extended their influence to the field of healthcare.
While public health generally centers on the scientific and technological advancements of medicine, there is one additional aspect that is critical to the industry: distribution. Medicine, and vaccines in particular, must be administered in a short time frame, an operation which is difficult to accomplish in remote locations. Many low- and middle-income countries struggle to secure vaccines to keep their citizens from getting sick or dying from preventable diseases. In response to this, Bay Area robotics startup Zipline is manufacturing a fleet of drones that will be able to deliver vaccines and other pharmaceuticals to otherwise inaccessible areas.
In partnership with the UPS Foundation and vaccine distribution organization Gavi, Zipline began operating in July 2016. The world’s first drone delivery program has already made a considerable impact delivering supplies to their first site: Rwanda. Only one-third of Africans live within two kilometers of a road that functions year-round; gaps in infrastructure and rough terrain make medical deliveries difficult. With drones, 50 to 150 medical deliveries per day are transported to 21 clinics across the western half of Rwanda via Zipline’s specialized guidance system.
When they need vaccines, clinic staff can text a central distribution center, where workers will pack the necessary medications into a box. The box is spring-loaded into a Zipline drone, also called a Zip, and is launched into the air. With the clinic’s GPS coordinates programmed into the drone’s flight plan, the Zip flies about 300 to 400 feet above the ground in a straight line toward the clinic. Once it reaches its destination, the Zip air-drops the shipment, which comes equipped with a parachute. The drone then returns to the launch site, where it will be ready to make another delivery after swapping in a new battery and a SIM card with a new flight plan.
In addition to the Zip’s design, Zipline has also considered the drone’s efficiency and economic feasibility. At the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Bruce Y. Lee, director of operations research at the International Vaccine Access Center, and his research team used computer simulations to compare the delivery of vaccines through traditional land-based transportation to that of drones. The simulations factored in conditions such as weather, road conditions, weight, space, and refrigeration. Researchers found that drones increased vaccine availability, potentially reaching 96 percent of the targeted population, versus 94 percent for land-based transportation. In addition, delivery through drones saves 8 cents per vaccination, translating into a 20 percent cost savings overall.
Zipline’s success calls attention to other developments in drone delivery. A firm named Flirtey has experimented with using multirotor helicopters to transport medical supplies in remote areas of Virginia. Silicon Valley start-up, Matternet, is working with the Malawi government and UNICEF to deliver infant HIV tests by quadcopter. Major companies, including Amazon and Google, are even testing out their own drone-delivery programs for commercial use.
As Zipline and multiple other organizations have demonstrated, automated drone delivery has the potential to occupy an invaluable niche in our world. Improvements in pharmaceutical distribution can widen medical access to remote areas, increase vaccination rates, and transform the medical infrastructures of developing countries. While drone-delivery programs are still largely in the developmental stage, their progression will no doubt have a considerable influence on the future of healthcare.