In the 21st century, autonomous flying vehicles known as drones have crossed over from science fiction to reality.
Applications of drones include surveillance, filmography and geomapping — fields that have seen the technology become increasingly commonplace in recent years. In the delivery space, too, drones hold great promise.
Having first floated the idea in 2013, Amazon announced in June that it plans to start piloting its Prime Air drone-powered delivery service later this year. Meanwhile, Israeli startup Flytrex is already offering drone-assisted food delivery across various U.S. locations. Most recently, the company partnered with Unilever to offer ice cream delivery in the sky.
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But while drones promise to revolutionize the food delivery and quick-commerce space, their ability to bring about transformative change in the healthcare sector can literally save lives.
Delivering Medicine in Hard-to-Reach Places
For people living in remote and isolated areas, getting reliable access to medicine can be a huge challenge and unmanned flying vehicles have the ability to plug that hole in the medical supply chain.
Africa-focused drone delivery startup Zipline, for example, works in partnership with the Rwandan Ministry of Health to deliver on-demand blood to rural health facilities.
Since the first blood delivery in 2016, Zipline has scaled nationwide and according to the company’s website, the firm now delivers specialized blood components and medicines to over 350 locations in the East African nation, handling over 75% of blood distribution outside of the capital, Kigali.
The ability to deliver essential medical supplies to remote locations is critical in a country like Rwanda, where the World Bank estimates that in 2021, 82% of the population lived in rural areas.
By providing a distribution network that doesn’t rely on roads and other heavy infrastructure, drone delivery systems like Zipline’s have the most tangible impact in places that aren’t well-connected to major road networks and where isolated communities have the most to gain from drastically reduced transport times.
For example, the Australian startup Swoop Aero claims to have cut a six-hour round-trip journey down to under 60 minutes thanks to its fleet of unmanned aircraft in Malawi. In that country where heavy rains have been known to leave rural communities cut off for weeks, drone delivery services from Swoop Aero and Germany’s Wingcopter are helping to get vital medical supplies to those in need.
What’s more, as companies like Zipline and Swoop Aero build out their logistics networks, the range of applications grows.
Given that drones are equipped to transport temperature-sensitive medicines and samples, Swoop Aero flights can safely convey vaccines on one journey and collect test samples for the return flight. Meanwhile, Zipline was enlisted by authorities in Ghana to distribute tens of thousands of facemasks to polling stations during an election in 2020.
Drone Networks in African Health Systems
Home to some of the world’s most rural populations where transport by road can often take hours or days in countries like Rwanda and Malawi, the African region is proving to be at the forefront of healthcare innovation in embracing drone technology.
It is not surprising then that both Zipline and Swoop Aero have expanded into other African markets.
The former now operates six distribution centers in Ghana in addition to its two in Rwanda. Zipline has also agreed to deals with healthcare providers in Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Kenya, with plans to launch distribution services in those countries too.
Swoop Aero, on the other hand, has expanded its autonomous distribution technologies from Malawai into Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
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