If you are stuck in a dire situation in the wilderness, the customary reaction is not to panic and await Superman or other superheroes to come to the rescue. But for people in remote parts of Africa, the savior might come in the form of an unlikely party – the humble drone. Wait, the drone? Isn’t that only for deliveries or taking films on holiday?
While the “cool” drone applications get all the plaudits, recently a whole range of solutions has emerged in the market, aiming to use drones to solve real-world problems. From agriculture to construction, drones are changing lives and no more so than in Africa, where California-based logistics company Zipline is using technology in Rwanda and Tanzania to help frontline medical staff.
In the real world, where Superman is unlikely to show up, suffering from a serious injury in a remote area is a severe challenge, given necessary medical supplies are too far away to access. In Africa, challenging terrain and infrastructure gaps are a huge impediment, and essential blood supply and vaccines are often unable to reach those who need them.
Using drones, healthcare workers can access supplies in time to save the day. Here’s how it works: Health workers in remote clinics text orders to Zipline’s distribution center. Zipline prepares the order, and launches drones from a catapult, which is flown and directed to parachute emergency supplies over the area in need. The whole process is then confirmed via text message to make sure the supplies have reached the destination.
The set-up matches trends in Africa, where increasing mobile and digital penetration, combined with large distances and inhospitable terrain, make the continent ideal for Zipline to trial its initiatives. In Rwanda, Zipline has partnered the government since 2016 to deliver blood to transfusion facilities, which is essential in cases of blood loss from, say, C-section delivery.
Zipline says it has flown more than 100,000 kilometers in Rwanda so far, delivering 2,600 units of blood over 1,400 flights. The project aims to place the country’s 12 million citizens within 30 minutes of any essential medical products.
In Tanzania, Zipline is partnering the government in a brand new initiative. Running from a distribution center in the capital of Dodoma, the company is making deliveries of blood transfusion supplies, emergency vaccines, HIV medications, anti-malarials and supplies such as sutures and IV tubes.
If all goes well, Zipline says it will have four distribution centers in the country, each operating 30 drones with a capacity for 500 flights in total per day. The drones can carry 1.5 kilos of cargo, with a speed of 110 kilometers per hour, and a range of 160 kilometers. In general, the company estimates orders from phone to drone and drop take 30 minutes on average.
The solution could offer inspiration for the development of life-saving services using drones all over the world. It will be of great benefit to those living in remote areas or trapped in inaccessible locations requiring medicine, water, food or extra warmth.
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