UPS Foundation funds medical deliveries by drone in Africa

Pharmaceutical CommercePharmaceutical Commerce - July/August 2016

Pilot program in Rwanda has commercial potential

Drone deliveries of medicines continue to pique the interest of healthcare logistics providers. In 2014, DHL ran a test in Germany, and last year the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration ran a similar test in the US, among other less-publicized undertakings. Now, another effort is under way between the government of Rwanda, the Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (which coordinates delivery of vaccines to the developing world) and a small Silicon Valley startup, Zipline (Half Moon Bay, CA). Unlike other tests, though, this one is setting up to be an ongoing effort, probably for charitable international developmental aid, and possibly with commercial potential for disaster relief.

In an unveiling earlier this month, Edward Martinez, president of the UPS Foundation, called the effort a “groundbreaking partnership;” in addition to an $800,000 contribution to the effort, UPS logistics experts will be helping set up the infrastructure in Rwanda, and will learn from the project for possible developed-world applications. “A resilient and efficient supply chain can save lives,” he said, noting that 60-80% of humanitarian relief efforts is spent on logistics.

The Zipline element to the partnership is a proprietary unmanned aircraft, equipped with a GPS system and designed to drop a parachute-equipped box, of up to 1.5 kg. (Presumably, the drone takes off, makes the drop and returns to its base in one trip.) Keller Rinaudo, Zipline CEO, says that the project will be able to make upwards of 150 deliveries a day (initially of blood supplies) to a circumference that covers 21 remote clinics in the western region of Rwanda. A July kickoff is planned, and a year-long program is envisioned initially. According to press reports, Zipline, founded in 2014, has already attracted substantial venture-capital support.

Dr. Seth Berkley, president of Gavi, notes that remote aid of this type is necessary for medical products that are generally shipped by cold chain and have a limited shelf life; stockpiling, say, a rabies vaccine, is not economically viable, yet lives depend on rapid delivery of medications.

There is already an organized system of international response to natural disasters or conflict zones, but as the folks at HealthcareReady point out, relief efforts are difficult even in the US after a natural disaster, when roads and communications can be shut down, yet medical supplies are urgently needed. And when disasters like the recent Ebola outbreak occur, it becomes a priority to get medical support even to the most remote regions to slow the outbreak. So, it’s possible to foresee a time when technologies like Zipline’s becomes a standard component of relief efforts.

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