This Country Is Using Drones to Save Thousands of Lives—Here’s How

Medical personnel often have to travel very far to pick up life-saving supplies. But this country's government is teaming up with robotics company Zipline to change that.

droneDmitry Kalinovsky/ShutterstockThe use of drones tends to be a contentious subject. These miniature unmanned aircrafts often make the news for causing neighborhood spats and even legal drama. But one company saw the major potential that this technology has to do some good.

Zipline, a robotics company based in Silicon Valley, California, has created drones that deliver blood to remote medical facilities in Rwanda. In the East African country, many health centers are in very remote locations, and rugged hills and dirt roads make traveling by vehicle difficult and time-consuming. When staffers at Kabgayi District Hospital needed blood for transfusions, it used to take them three to four hours to get to and from the national hospital in the capital, Kigali. Now, thanks to Zipline’s amazing technology, medical personnel can request a unit of blood and have it delivered within 15 minutes.

The service is currently delivering blood to seven medical facilities throughout Rwanda, with plans to expand to a total of 21. The drones are designed to resist bad weather, and they are programmed to drop their payloads within five meters of a certain spot to ensure that no supplies are lost on the way. In addition to surgical patients, the blood will also help mothers in childbirth and children suffering from malaria. Learn about another amazing robot that’s changing the medicine world.

The idea was the brainchild of William Hetzler and Keenan Wyrobek, the cofounders of Zipline. After Zipline (then called Romotive) became well-known for creating a virtual robotic pet called Romo, its CEO and cofounders began searching for a way to have a greater social impact. In 2014, Hetzler and Wyrobeck traveled to Rwanda’s neighbor, Tanzania, where they were struck by all of the preventable medical tragedies they encountered. “The obvious missing piece was a way to very rapidly respond… and get the product into a place where it isn’t otherwise readily accessible,” said Hetzler. He and Wyrobek decided to set up their first launch site near the Rwandan town of Muhanga. In late 2016, their first drone deliveries were made.

Because Rwanda is so densely populated, the drones can reach nearly half of its 11.6 million people from a single launch site. Zipline plans on adding a second site that will allow the drones to cover almost the entire nation. They are also planning to expand to other nations, both near and far. They already have an agreement with Tanzania’s Ministry of Defense. In the future, they hope to operate within the United States as well.

The drones are currently only delivering blood and some of its components such as platelets and plasma. Zipline plans to expand its service and deliver other important items like vaccines and diagnostic test kits. Here are 10 myths about vaccines, debunked.

Espoir Kajibwami, a surgeon at Kabgayi Hospital, says that the drone service has already made a noticeable difference. “Before, it was a serious problem to have blood when we needed it,” he says. Reflecting on a specific time when Zipline’s blood helped him save a woman who was having complications with a surgery, he said that “it would have been very difficult to manage it” without the blood’s quick arrival. Here are 12 tips for your next hospital visit.

Source: MIT Technology Review

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a Staff Writer for RD.com who has been writing since before she could write. She graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English and has been writing for Reader's Digest since 2017. In spring 2017, her creative nonfiction piece "Anticipation" was published in Angles literary magazine. She is a proud Hufflepuff and member of Team Cap.