Telemedicine, Startups

Your critical medical supplies could be a drone away

Companies like Zipline and Flirtey are testing the use of drones to ship critical medical supplies like blood units to far-flung regions of the world. The White House is supporting unmanned aerial vehicles for healthcare too.

A drone from Zipline delivering a package

A drone from Zipline delivering a package

Drones are already being considered for news reporting, home delivery, and even new racing entertainment. Now the healthcare industry is taking a closer look at unmanned aerial vehicles, with one California company having begun testing the viability of using drones to deliver critical medical supplies overseas overseas.

Zipline, based in Half Moon Bay near San Francisco, recently set up a base of operations with 10 employees and 15 of its custom designed and built unmanned aircraft — Zips — in Rwanda. With help from an $800,000 grant from the UPS Foundation, the company has signed a one-year partnership agreement with the African nation’s government, and is taking over last-mile delivery of units of blood for transfusions for the western half of the country.

Over the next few months the startup plans to ramp up to between 50 and 100 deliveries a day, seven days a week. By the end of the year, deliveries are expected to start in the eastern half of Rwanda as well.

“The biggest thing isn’t necessarily the cost savings,” said Ryan Oksenhorn, Zipline’s software engineering lead, in a phone interview. “The biggest thing is every delivery we make will be providing health service to remote areas and people that were previously not receiving it at all.”

Over two years Zipline, which employs 35 people and has raised $18 million in funding to date, has worked to build a drone delivery system capable of operating on a national scale. In Rwanda, those first 15 drones, each one capable of flying more than 100 miles an hour, will ship blood received from large district hospitals and warehouses to 20 health clinics in the western half of the country using one distribution site. Oksenhorn said each Zip can fly to any location within 70 kilometers, or about 43 miles. The drones themselves resemble small airplanes with wingspans of 6 feet, are capable of lugging almost 3 pounds, and are powered by two interchangeable batteries.

As for the trips Zips will be making — that’s all automated. No person with a radio controller is required to steer these drones. Their flight routes through Rwandan skies are charted and pre-programmed by Zipline. So if a rural health clinic requires one unit of O positive blood, a worker there will place the order through a smartphone app, the details of which will be sent to Zipline’s base in Rwanda. Then, after one Zip taken on its cargo, it’ll fly off to that clinic, and drop its shipment, which touches down gently thanks to a parachute. The drone never lands until it returns to base.

“Rwanda has a few large cities with ample supplies of blood, but then a huge proportion of the population [lives] in previously unreachable areas due to mountainous terrain and impassable roads,” Oksenhorn said. “You can’t send a gas-powered truck with one unit of blood. But you can send a tiny, 20-pound electric vehicle that flies on its own.”

Zipline isn’t the only company experimenting with drones for healthcare.

Flirtey, a Reno, Nevada-based company, completed the first ship-to-shore delivery of medical supplies by drone in June. Another company, Ypsilanti, Michigan-based Vayu, just completed shipping samples of blood from rural villages to a centralized lab run by the Stony Brook University in Madagascar.

But just how viable, and practical, drone deliveries are is still a question regardless of tests various startups have carried out.

“There are a bunch of companies trying to make this a business, but no one has yet done a publicly available, robust study of the use of drones in the field,” said Timothy Amukele,an assistant professor with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine by phone. “The hype is ahead of the reality, honestly.”

In his mind, the question of viability isn’t over whether people can learn to fly drones.  Someone can learn to pilot a drone in a matter of hours and after a week, they’ll be flying with a fairly high proficiency, said Amukele, who worked with Flirtey on the ship-to-shore delivery. Neither is it about concern over crowded skies, since drones will follow demarcated flight paths at altitudes below one would expect a helicopter to fly.

What Amukele wants to see is a use case in a country where drones have proven, over a period of several months to a year, that they can consistently and repeatedly deliver medicine when and where it is needed.

“All that we have now suggests drone will work pretty well and be cheaper than conventional methods,” he said. “[But] I fear some of the folks who stand to make money from it are overselling it somewhat.”

Still, Amukele sees promise.

He spends roughly 20 percent of his time in African and Asian countries where people’s access to medicine is hindered either by mountainous terrain or prohibitive transportation costs. His research over the last two years has focused on the stability of biological samples when carried by a drone. After testing 300 tubes of blood, he’s found that biological samples stand up well to being shipped by drone, and even hold up during a landing.

“I came to this as a skeptic, but I really think it makes sense,” he said.

There are applications in the U.S., too, despite the fact that access isn’t as much of an issue compared with sub-Saharan Africa.

For instance, patients who need something like a rabies vaccination within 24 hours could wait at a local medical clinic for a drone drop-off, instead of being airlifted by helicopter to the closest large hospital or medical facility that carries the vaccine, according to Zipline’s Oksenhorn.

The White House announced in early August that it plans to do preliminary missions for drone drops of medical supplies to places like remote Smith Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay as well as in Nevada, and Washington, including in Indian reservations. Zipline, with support from Ellumen, ASD Healthcare, and the nonprofit Bloodworks Northwest, will perform these demonstrations.

Photo Credit: Zipline