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Feb 2021: Zipline – a healthcare drone delivery service

Author: Thomas Dale MacLaine, Founder & Chair of Warwick SMT

Over 2 billion people in the world lack access to vital medicines, and services such as blood tests, vaccinations and emergency services. Countries facing economic and climate disruption such as Rwanda are prime examples of locations where a significant number within their population do not have access to these healthcare services. For example, roads are often unpaved and treacherous to travel on, and in monsoon seasons extensive travel to healthcare services becomes impossible for many.

Exciting developments in engineering have inspired the creation of an autonomous drone delivery service across Rwanda. This drone delivery service (called Zipline) has revolutionised the provision of healthcare services across the country by radically improving access to resources. When the service receives an order for a resource, the drone can be loaded up with up to 1.6kg of medical stock and be dispatched within 5 minutes. The drones rely on global positioning systems (GPS), which is fitted to the drone’s battery meaning the drone is always primed to be dispatched and does not need to wait for the GPS to load. Novel technology within the drone also identifies any obstacles in the planned airspace route and can alter the motor speed accordingly to prevent collision.

These drones have a modular design, allowing for the rapid stocking, preparation of the drone on the launching system and ease of maintenance. QR codes are placed on each section of each modular component and, using mobile phones to test each component, a computer algorithm determines the pre-flight safety of each drone. As soon as the drone has completed the pre-flight safety checks, the launching system is activated, propelling the drone to the flight speed of 60mp/h in 0.3s. The drone releases the resource safely from a hatch close to the ground, with the stock held in an insulated disposable cardboard box with connected parachute. Zipline has a 50mile radius of operation, though with additional zipline bases set up the drones could feasibly travel across these sequentially, making their reach incredibly vast.

This technology has the possibility of supporting not only in developing countries, but in disaster relief scenarios and centralise emergency healthcare provisions to support rapid allocation and distribution of resources. These drones may also prove to be invaluable during times of quarantine, minimising human exposure to contagious diseases and prevent additional spread of disease. With the UK government currently investing in integrating drone technology, it may be plausible that services mimicking Zipline here in the UK improves accessibility to healthcare services and resources. Look here for more information on the Zipline service.

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Previous Blogs:

If you're interested in reading any of the previous blog posts, find them on the links below:

Feb 2021 - Zipline: a healthcare drone delivery service

Dec 2020 - Biomimetic design: making medical prosthetics more human

November 2020: Value-based care and Warwick SMT