Life-Saving Drones: Zipline in East Africa

Zipline is a drone company that partners with governments to enable quick delivery of critical medical supplies in Eastern Africa, saving lives and reducing healthcare costs.

Drones to the Rescue

An exciting advancement allowed by the digitalization of supply chains is the use of drones, first developed for military use, to improve delivery times and reduce last-mile delivery costs for corporations and consumers. The most recognized example of this emerging technology is the Amazon Prime Air drone, an iconic quad-copter design that promises delivery of consumer goods within minutes.[1] While the American public eagerly awaits near instant delivery of goods, similar technology is also being harnessed in developing nations for humanitarian and public health reasons.  Zipline is an automated drone company that partners with governments to enable quick delivery of critical medical supplies in Eastern Africa, saving lives and reducing healthcare costs.

Digital (Drone) Infrastructure

Healthcare efforts in the developing world have long been hampered by supply chain issues including inconsistent availability, lack of funding, and spoilage. These problems are exacerbated by a lack of infrastructure such as reliable roads between city centers and regional hospitals and clinics, which increases delivery time and costs. In many nations the onset of the rainy season means that supplies can take days to get from centralized warehouse to the point of care.[2]

Already successfully rolled out in Rwanda, Zipline has taken drone technology and made it more cost-effective and self-sufficient to provide a high-value, rapid logistics systems in developing nations. Zipline has worked with the Rwandan government’s Civil Aviation Administration to use flight and GPS data to allow the drones to self-navigate, without need for expensive sensors.[3] The 40-pound, fixed-wing aircraft are designed to use less power than the more common quad-rotor drones, and can take off in high winds and poor weather.[4] The drones are battery powered and designed to need infrequent charging (once per 1,500 flights) as power is unavailable in many areas whey they deliver. Each drone can carry a 3.5-pound payload up to 45 miles and drop it precisely with a disposable wax-paper parachute, avoiding the need for a tricky landing.[5]

At full roll out, Rwanda alone will have around 30 drones, making 150 deliveries a day of life-saving medical supplies to medical centers across the country.[6] According to company sources, the deliveries, which are paid for by the Rwandan government, are done at cost-parity to truck deliveries, but are delivered via parachute drop in as quickly as 15 minutes.[7]

By keeping supplies of blood and critical medications in regional hubs, rather than in individual hospitals, the drones allow the creation of an agile pull-based supply chain that minimizes inventory costs by reducing spoilage and inefficiently allocated just-in-case inventory.[8]

Source: Lora Kolodny, “An test flight with Zipline, makers of humanitarian deliver drones,” TechCrunch, October 13, 2016, https://techcrunch.com/2016/10/13/a-test-flight-with-zipline-makers-of-humanitarian-delivery-drones/, accessed November 2017.

Growing Buzz(ing)

After the success of the initial roll out in Rwanda, the Zipline announced in August that they will also launch in Tanzania in the first half of 2018, where they will serve an additional 10 million people via 1,000 deliveries a day.[9] In the short term, I believe that Zipline should concentrate on continuing to expand efforts in Eastern Africa, where the need for blood and medication is high, and they can test their product with the support of local governments and NGOs.

Better, Faster, Stronger

The long-term economic viability of the model will depend Zipline’s ability to continue to develop their business model and product. While they claim to be on the verge of cost parity with traditional delivery methods, their current efforts are enabled by donations from non-profits and cost isn’t transparent. To scale successfully, they’ll either need to broaden their customer pool by increasing the size and weight of the drone’s payload, or continue to depress manufacturing and operating costs. Additionally, Zipline will need to decide whether to provide the service for a fee, as they do currently, or sell or lease the technology directly to hospitals and health systems.

While the current GPS-based navigation system is low cost it may prohibit the drones from operating in countries with more air traffic or denser populations. Additionally, the range of 45 miles, though sufficient in smaller countries, won’t be sufficient to drive adoption in larger markets such as India.

Are Drones the Answer?

While it’s clear that Zipline’s drones have the potential to help thousands, the question remains whether this is the right place for the Rwandan Government to put their money, instead of investing in infrastructure, or more established life-saving technologies. Even when blood or life-saving drugs are delivered more quickly a shortage of medical professionals and adequate care facilities means that good outcomes aren’t assured. Currently, the authoritarian Rwandan government does not disclose the costs of the program, and some contend it is intended as a PR stunt to distract from human rights and political freedom abuses[10]

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[1] Amazon, “Amazon Prime Air,” https://www.amazon.com/Amazon-Prime-Air/b?ie=UTF8&node=8037720011, accessed November 2017.

[2] Gavi, “Rwanda Launches First National Drone Service Powered by Zipline,” http://www.gavi.org/library/news/gavi-features/2016/rwanda-launches-world-s-first-national-drone-delivery-service-powered-by-zipline/, accessed November 2017.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Lora Kolodny, “An test flight with Zipline, makers of humanitarian deliver drones,” TechCrunch, October 13, 2016, https://techcrunch.com/2016/10/13/a-test-flight-with-zipline-makers-of-humanitarian-delivery-drones/, accessed November 2017.

[5] Marco della Cava, “Drone startup backed by Allen, Yang, to deliver medical supplies in Rwanda,” USA Today, April 4th, 2016, https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/04/04/drone-plane-startup-nabs-funds-paul-allen-jerry-yang/82536598/, accessed November 2017.

[6] Jack Stewart, “This Startup Wants to Use Drones to Drop Blood, Not Bombs,” Wired, May 9th, 2016, https://www.wired.com/2016/05/zipline-drones-rwanda/, accessed November 2017.

[7] Marco della Cava, “Drone startup backed by Allen, Yang, to deliver medical supplies in Rwanda,” USA Today, April 4th, 2016, https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2016/04/04/drone-plane-startup-nabs-funds-paul-allen-jerry-yang/82536598/, accessed November 2017.

[8] Steve Bankers, “Drones Deliver Life-Saving Medical Supplies in Africa,” Forbes, October 13th, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevebanker/2017/10/13/drones-deliver-life-saving-medical-supplies-in-africa/2/#11ffab23183c, accessed November 2017.

[9] “Tanzania Announces World’s Largest National Drone Delivery Network Partnering with Zipline,” Zipline press release (Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, August 24th, 2017).

[10] Technology Review, “Zipline’s Ambitious Medical Drone Delivery in Africa,” https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608034/blood-from-the-sky-ziplines-ambitious-medical-drone-delivery-in-africa/, accessed November 2017.

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8 thoughts on “Life-Saving Drones: Zipline in East Africa

  1. Joe, I really enjoyed your article. The speed and accessibility of drones is certainly a compelling argument for delivering critical medical supplies, particularly in underdeveloped regions. I found you last point quite intriguing. Apart from whatever “altruistic” motives that central governments have, I too share the concern that these programs might distract from investing in basic infrastructure, which unarguably has more upside in the future. Delivering medical supplies is good, but connecting villages to cities with hospitals, physicians, and other healthcare services is great.

  2. Great post! While I won’t consider myself a tech-geek, I’ve been both impressed and also disturbed with the rise of technology. I fully agree with the concerns that you’ve laid out that while Zipline has done a great job in delivering much needed medical supplies to remote areas of Rwanda (and expanding into other Eastern African countries with equally high need of such supplies), this still seems to me to be a band-aid solution to a bigger healthcare delivery problems. While I don’t think this is merely a PR stunt to cover a darker side of the country, I do think it can be a distraction (or a cover-up, if I’m more cynical) of investing in tackling root causes of healthcare challenges. I think what could be an interesting combination is seeing more of telemedicine (e.g. the Dr. Shetty’s case) in conjunction with medical drone delivery. For now, at least, I remain optimistic that Zipline is doing more good than harm – at least, it’s encouraging to see drones and technological advances being implemented to address critical issues and save lives, instead of simply delivering the latest gadget we ordered from Amazon.

  3. Great piece! However when you say the cost of drone deliveries is at parity with that of trucks – is that on each delivery? Or is it per unit of delivery? Also is there any information on the distance between the points of delivery? Because I can imagine this may not work as well in country bigger than Rwanda where the distances may be much longer.

    1. Mistake: I just realized that you touched on both issues that I mentioned in my comment (my bad)- So I am optimistic that Zipline could make a difference in healthcare in East Africa provided they continue improving on some of the issues that you have highlighted.

  4. Really interesting post! I continue to be amazed by how technology is reshaping the transportation industry. Even if at its current stage the Zipline program might seem like a small part in solving a systematic healthcare problem in East Africa, it has the potential save many lives. In many developed countries, investing in transportation infrastructure to connect small villages and towns is not economically viable. The Zipline program can circumvent these infrastructure gaps and reach people that can’t be reached by traditional methods. Even though I think this is an interesting prospect, I think there are two main problems that need to be fixed. First, the 45 miles range as you mentioned limits drastically the number of people that can be reached. Developing new models with higher ranges should be a priority for Zipline. Second, delivering medicine it’s not enough to solve the healthcare problems in East Africa. There should be a program in place that complements this with a network of healthcare facilities that leverage other technological advancements like telemedicine.

  5. What a cool topic, Joe. I am consistently amazed by how technology is rapidly changing the standard of living in remote areas of the world. My first though on Zipline’s business model is in wrapped up in some questions that you may have more information on–are the medical centers publicly or privately funded? If they are privately funded, how long does Zipline plan to be funded by the government before it makes the leap into Business-to-business contracts? My fear is two-fold: 1) at some point, due to political reasons, the funding for this important program gets cut and now medical centers and patients are once again separated from the materials they need and 2) it is operating as a distraction as you describe in your last paragraph.

  6. Joe, this is a very interesting article – thank you for sharing. While drones are becoming more and more familiar in the US from a recreational context (i.e., for photography) or for warfare, I hadn’t realized that they were being used for such a unique and value-added purpose. To address your last question of whether Drones are the right place for the government to spend money relative to infrastructure, I think that it is. The reason is two-fold – (i) Drones, even 30 of them, will be significantly cheaper than building roads, bridges, or hospitals; (ii) Speed – ramping up drone deliveries will take a matter of months, not the years that it will take to build hard infrastructure. To be clear, this does not mean that Rwanda should not invest in infrastructure – it should. But in the meantime, Zipline is a great stop-gap measure to incrementally improve the existing situation.

  7. Joe, great article. I think this drone technology does hold a lot of promise for various uses in East Africa, but I think it’s also to address the root cause of the supply chain issues in healthcare. You noted the symptoms (inconsistent availability, spoilage) and some root causes (lack of funding, infrastructure/rainy season). However I think it’s essential look at the full range of root causes for the lack of availability of medical products, which also include non-optimal use of funds, low ability to forecast consumption due to lack of human capital and IT systems, and highly centralized systems that create long lead times. I believe these need to be addressed in order to create systemic change in the medical supply system in Rwanda, as delivery is only one aspect of the supply chain.

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