Using drones for good is an idea that has generated a lot of buzz in high-tech circles — and it will soon get a powerful real-world test.
Rwanda’s Ministry of Health is working with nonprofits and Zipline, a California robotics company, to build a drone network to deliver medical supplies to remote, hard-to-reach villages. The goal is that by next year all 11 million residents of Rwanda will be within 30 minutes of a site where the delivery drones can land.
The UPS Foundation has awarded $800,000 to support the one-year pilot project. The shipping company has also assigned engineers to the project who will provide expertise in logistics, warehousing, and handling material.
"If you have an efficient supply chain, you’re going to save lives," Eduardo Martinez, president of the UPS Foundation, said at an event announcing the partnership.
Poor infrastructure, such as roads that wash out and are impassable during the rainy season, make it challenging to get medical supplies where they’re needed in many developing countries. Initially, the drone network in Rwanda will focus on delivering blood, but the plan is to expand the project to include vaccines and life-saving treatments.
Saving Time, and Lives
The delivery of time-sensitive vaccines by drone could be a real advance in public health, said Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, another participant in the project. He cited the rabies vaccine as an example.
When someone is bitten by a rabid animal, it’s a race against time to administer the vaccine. Without it, the patient will die. But stocking rabies medication in all clinics can be challenging in poor countries. The vaccine is expensive and has to be kept cold, something that’s difficult to do in areas with an unreliable power supply.
Being able to deliver "just-in-time vaccines" where they’re needed by drone would be "an elegant solution to a difficult problem," said Dr. Berkley.
The partners in the drone project hope that what they learn will help create a delivery model other countries can adopt.
Said Mr. Martinez: "Our vision is to look beyond Rwanda."