REPORT: UPS drones are saving lives in Africa

UPS and Zipline are partnering to make emergency deliveries of blood across the most under developed and hard to access regions of Rwanda in what is a world first in last mile fulfilment.
Over the course of the next year, and with the support of the partnership with UPS and Gavi, Zipline plans to expand drone delivery services to countries across Africa and the Americas.
Over the course of the next year, and with the support of the partnership with UPS and Gavi, Zipline plans to expand drone delivery services to countries across Africa and the Americas.

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In late 2016, Rwandan President Paul Kagame launched the world’s fi rst national drone delivery service during a ceremony in the country’s centrally located Muhanga District.

The Rwandan government is using drones to make up to 150 on-demand, emergency deliveries per day of life-saving blood to 21 transfusing facilities located in the western half of the country.

The drones and delivery service are built and operated by Zipline, a California-based robotics company.

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While Rwanda’s drone delivery service will initially focus on blood, an international partnership between UPS, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and Zipline will help the country quickly expand the types of medicines and lifesaving vaccines that can be delivered.

“Drones are very useful, both commercially and for improving services in the health sector. We are happy to be launching this innovative technology and to continue working with partners to develop it further,” President Kagame said during the ceremony. ‎

“The inability to deliver life saving medicines to the people who need them the most causes millions of preventable deaths each year around the world. Zipline will help solve that problem once and for all,” says Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo. “We’ve built an instant delivery system for the world, allowing medicine to be delivered on-demand and at low-cost, anywhere.”

International director of public relations at UPS, Gregg Svingen adds that there are plans to expand the service to other parts of the country, with details likely to be forthcoming in the near-future. “This is not just a historic development for logistics,” says Svingen. “It’s not just a historic moment for humanitarian aid potential either. It is life saving and it actually means something to people from day one.”

This is because throughout the developing world, access to lifesaving and critical health products is hampered by what is known as the last-mile problem: the inability to deliver needed medicine from a city to rural or remote locations due to lack of adequate transportation, communication and supply chain infrastructure.

In Rwanda, postpartum hemorrhaging is the leading cause of death for pregnant women. Blood requires storage and transport at safe temperatures and spoils quickly.

Because there are many different blood products and no way to accurately project future needs, many transfusion clinics do not keep all the blood they may need in stock.

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Furthermore, during Rwanda’s lengthy rainy season, many roads wash out becoming impassable or nonexistent. 

The result is that all too often someone in need of a lifesaving transfusion cannot access the blood they need to survive.

Rwanda’s national drone delivery program enables blood transfusion clinics across the Western half of the country to place emergency orders by cell phone text message.

The orders are then received by Zipline at its distribution centre located in the country’s Muhanga region where the company maintains a fleet of 15 drones, called Zips, with each doing around ten deliveries per day.

Each Zip can fly up to 150 km round trip—even in wind and rain—and carry 1.5kg of blood, which is enough to save a person’s life. Zips take off and land at the distribution centre, and make deliveries by descending close to the ground and air dropping medicine to a designated spot called a “mailbox” near the health centres they serve.

Zipline will make 50-150 emergency flights a day to 21 transfusion clinics across the Western Half of Rwanda and can fulfil orders in around 30 minutes roundtrip.

Rwanda plans to expand Zipline’s drone delivery service to the Eastern half of the country in early 2017, putting almost every one of the country’s 11 million citizens within reach of instant delivery of lifesaving medicines.

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Now, UPS and Zipline are teaming up with Gavi to make vaccines as accessible to rural clinics as blood.

The UPS Foundation has donated US $1.1 million towards a program to study Rwanda’s blood drone delivery operation with an eye towards helping the country quickly expand the types of medicines and lifesaving vaccines that can be delivered.

“Gavi understands the need for vaccines in developing countries, it’s a life or death matter, while UPS has the supply chain worldwide to accommodate the transport and storage of these sensitive medicines,” explains Svingen. “We have cold supply chain capabilities around the world, we are accustomed to delivering goods that have to be kept in very specific temperatures.”

So, leveraging UPS’s extensive global supply chain and logistics expertise, Gavi’s deep public health and vaccine knowledge, and Zipline’s cutting edge last-mile delivery technology, the partnership hopes to use the knowledge gained in Rwanda and export it around the world.

“One of the most important focus areas for The UPS Foundation is to spark public-private partnerships that create powerful scale and drive demonstrable impact in support of global humanitarian aid and relief,” says Eduardo Martinez, president of The UPS Foundation and chief diversity and inclusion officer at UPS.

“The shared belief in the ability to save lives through applied innovation, combined with Rwanda’s vision, is now not only poised to advance humanitarian logistics – and logistics as we know it – around the world, but also to save lives. Now is when our partnership between The UPS Foundation, Gavi and Zipline counts most, as we see the first operational missions dedicated to shipping lifesaving blood, and keep our eye on what the future can bring for other life-saving commodities, as well as for other parts of the world,” he adds.

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“Drones have the potential to revolutionise the way we reach remote communities with emergency medical supplies. The hours saved delivering blood products or a vaccine for someone who has been exposed to rabies with this technology could make the difference between life and death,” says Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

“This project will also act as an important test for whether drones are a viable way to improve targeted vaccine delivery around the world. Every child deserves basic, lifesaving vaccines. This technology could be an important step towards ensuring they get them.”

Over the course of the next year, and with the support of the partnership with UPS and Gavi, Zipline plans to expand drone delivery services to countries across Africa and the Americas.

“UPS thinks this will be easy to replicate because we have done it, we now know how it works, and it’s ready to be launched in other parts of the world,” says Svingen. “There has been interest from a myriad of government who look at this as a way to do something important.”

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