UPS teams with Zipline, Gavi to deliver medical supplies using drones

UPS ($UPS) has teamed up with robotics company Zipline and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to trial the use of drones to deliver medical supplies. The allies will initially use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to deliver blood to facilities in western Rwanda, a mountainous region where overland transport is difficult. Deliveries via drone are expected to start later this year.

The Rwandan government is using Zipline UAVs that are expected to make up to 150 deliveries a day to 21 blood transfusion facilities in the western half of the country. While the center of Rwanda is mainly made up of rolling hills and the east consists of grasslands and plains, the western region is mountainous. With elevations ranging from 5,000 to 8,000 feet, it can be difficult to reach facilities in the region quickly, particularly during the rainy seasons that can last for two-thirds of the year.

Faced with these challenges, the Rwandan government has turned to Zipline, a Californian robotics company that has developed miniature unmanned planes to parachute supplies into remote regions. The government is hoping to slash delivery timelines. A delivery that would take four hours by road is expected to take 15 minutes using Zipline. Time savings are particularly valuable in blood logistics. The range of blood types and limited shelf life of the material make it hard for facilities to maintain stocks for all eventualities. As such, postpartum hemorrhaging is a major health problem.

These factors make blood delivery an ideal proving ground for the drone delivery model, which will ship supplies from a central location to 21 sites around the country. If successful, the model could be expanded to support the delivery of other types of medical supplies, such as vaccines and treatments for AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. UPS is supporting the project through an $800,000 grant, while the involvement of Gavi lays the groundwork for the expansion into vaccines.

“It is a totally different way of delivering vaccines to remote communities and we are extremely interested to learn if UAVs can provide a safe, effective way to make vaccines available for some of the hardest-to-reach children,” Gavi CEO Dr. Seth Berkley said in a statement.

News of the alliance comes one week after a United Therapeutics’ ($UTHR) subsidiary ordered up to 1,000 drones from Chinese manufacturer EHang. The order is a precursor to the creation of an aerial organ delivery network in the U.S., a country that poses different technical and regulatory challenges than Rwanda.

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