Friday, December 1, 2017

In Rwanda, Drones Deliver Medical Supplies to Remote Areas: Such services help people in isolated regions—and could yield lessons for making shipments elsewhere

Bags of blood that were dropped by a drone were stored in a refrigerator at Kabgayi Hospital.

The Wall Street Journal
By Robert Lee Hotz
Updated Dec. 1, 2017 5:48 a.m. ET

MUHANGA, Rwanda—Long before the drone flew into view, the nurse standing in the driveway at Kabgayi Hospital in central Rwanda could hear its mosquito whine. As it soared overhead, the small airship ejected a red cardboard box tethered to a wax-paper parachute that drifted to the pavement.

Inside were three bags of human blood platelets that the nurse rushed to the hospital’s transfusion center, where they were needed for an emergency. A delivery that hospital officials say normally takes three hours or more in local traffic was done in 15 minutes.

Several drone companies are using cutting-edge technology to deliver essential medical supplies to remote areas where people are isolated by rugged terrain, bad roads, and seasonal flooding—and, in the process, gaining experience that could be used for shipments in more densely populated places.

“It saves the lives of our patients,” said Philippe Nteziryayo, Kabgayi Hospital’s director general.

A San Francisco-based automated logistics firm called Zipline International Inc. is working with the Rwandan government to deliver blood and vaccines by drone on demand. The company plans to expand into Tanzania next year. Matternet Inc., based in Menlo Park, Calif., has run pilot projects in Haiti, Bhutan and Papua New Guinea.

The medical services are developing as transport companies, e-commerce goliaths and tech startups world-wide are testing drone deliveries of an array of products, from fast-food orders to consumer goods. Governments are wrestling with safety issues in densely populated urban areas where there is plenty of existing air traffic and congestion on the roads can slow delivery trucks and emergency vehicles to a crawl.

In the U.S., concerns over the risk to passenger aircraft and other problems have blocked drone delivery. A new directive from the Trump administration in October creates pilot programs to expand drone traffic, and more than 1,400 groups have signed up with the Federal Aviation Administration in hopes of becoming part of five drone projects to be tested during the next three years. More than 75,000 commercial unmanned aerial vehicles are registered in the U.S. alone.

The Zipline service in Rwanda operates from a small base amid bean fields in the country’s highlands. The company has logged 2,000 medical flights in the past year using 15 all-weather unmanned battery-powered aircraft.

One-third of the flights have been emergency deliveries of blood for women hemorrhaging after childbirth or for accident victims, company and hospital officials say.

“By flight volume, they are operating one of the busiest airlines in Africa,” says Zipline spokesman Justin Hamilton.

Zipline flight operator Michael Ngamije conducted preflight safety checks in Muhanga, Rwanda, before launching a drone.

Zipline is preparing to open a second drone base in Rwanda, bringing its fleet there to 60 drones. It plans to open four bases in Tanzania, where it expects to operate 120 autonomous aircraft to supply blood, vaccines and other medical supplies to 1,000 clinics that together serve about 10 million people.

“You are innovating in an African setting something that would be hard to do in the West,” said Seth Berkley, CEO of the nonprofit Gavi Alliance, a multibillion-dollar program that promotes immunization among children in developing countries.

In rural Africa, about two billion people lack adequate access to essential medical care due to challenging terrain and roads, according to the World Health Organization.

Zipline hopes to expand to the U.S. And Matternet secured permission in March to open the first autonomous drone medical delivery network in Switzerland, in partnership with the national postal system Swiss Post. In a trial run, the company currently is using a single drone to ferry supplies between two hospitals in Lugano. They plan to link hospitals in Bern, Zurich and other cities starting later next year.

When operational, the program expects to lease each of its drones for $2,000 a month and charge the same rate for the vehicle’s automated base station, which serves as a docking port where batteries can be recharged between flights and packages loaded. Company executives say that would save Swiss hospital systems up to 40% over the current cost of on-demand delivery.

“The technology is in its infancy but already it has compelling cost and delivery advantages,” says Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos. “We think this will be really transformational for medical logistics.”

In a study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers in Sweden found they could get automatic external defibrillators to the scene of a heart attack an average of 16 minutes faster by drone than by ambulance.

Some medical experts worry that a drone delivery might be too rough for more fragile medical samples.

“This is not like moving a pair of shoes or a book,” said Timothy Amukele, a pathologist at Johns Hopkins University who has tested how well red blood cells, platelets and fresh frozen plasma withstand drone transport. “Things like blood and other biological materials are much more fragile and time sensitive. If the cargo doesn’t maintain its clinical integrity then the whole thing is useless.”

So far, researchers are finding that delicate tissue samples, organs for transplant, bacteria cultures, and blood products necessary for critical pathology tests appear to withstand vibration and temperature changes during short drone flights.

At a military test range in Arizona earlier this year, Dr. Amukele and his colleagues flew human blood and pathology samples on drones for up to three hours and then ran them through a battery of nine chemistry and hematology tests. They found no ill effects. They reported their university-funded findings in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology.

“I do think this technology will improve hospitals,” said Dr. Amukele.

Original article can be found here ➤


Anonymous said...

Africa only has 1.2 billion people. How could 2 billion lack access to essential medical care? Fantastic article nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic! Excellent solution.