Zipline Continues Medical Drone Deliveries, Expanding to Ghana

Some three years after US Robotics company Zipline started a pilot project to deliver medicines via drone in Rwanda, the successful program is now expanding to Ghana.

Autor*in Tristan Rayner, 04.29.19

Some three years after US Robotics company Zipline started a pilot project to deliver medicines via drone in Rwanda, the successful program is now expanding to Ghana.

Zipline, which counts deliveries on its homepage, has shipped more than 13,000 deliveries via its autonomous airplane drones. Since its official launch in October 2016, following a pilot program covered by RESET that year, Zipline drones have travelled more than one million kilometres, clocking in at an average 76km on a round trip, at speeds of up to 100km per hour.

Many of these are last mile deliveries, replacing challenging overland transportation via rough dirt roads and mountainous regions, which in the past would have been serviced by motorbike deliveries.

Zipline’s expansion beyond Rwanda, where it had been delivering medical products (including transporting up to 1.5kg of blood over 150km), means that Ghanaian health workers will now be able to place orders via text message, and receive a delivery via parachute within 30 minutes.

The remote drone delivery system sounds more futuristic than most healthcare around the world. The drones, known as Zips, fly in sun and rain, day and night, dropping a parachute above the location before returning home. Intriguingly, the drones don’t stop to land, and don’t have landing gears or wheels for either take off or landing. Instead, a slingshot launches them into the air and the Zips land via a capture system that catches and drops the drone into a kind of air-filled bouncy castle.

Supported by the Ghanaian government, the drones will be able to ferry 150 different medicines and vaccines, as well as blood, to more than Ghanaian clinicians, covering 12 million people. Zipline’s coverage reaches an 80km radius from a single base, with two established in Ghana, and two more set to be completed by the first half of 2019.

“No one in Ghana should die because they can’t access the medicine they need in an emergency,” Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said in a statement. “That’s why Ghana is launching the world’s largest drone delivery service… a major step towards giving everyone in this country universal access to lifesaving medicine.”

Before the service was given a green light, the deal ratified by the Ghanaian parliament was opposed by some parties, including the Ghana Medical Association (GMA). The deal is set to cost the state $145,000 dollars a month at each distribution centre, while the GMA noted that while it wasn’t against new technologies “it does not fit into the country’s existing healthcare policy”. Further criticisms published in a statement said “new interventions should be complementing existing efforts and not be treated as the single most important activity to solve the country’s health problems.”

According to TechCrunch, to date, the startup has raised $41 million from investors including Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, and Subtraction Capital, as well as grants and support from from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Pfizer.

In a Reddit AMA last year, engineers from the Zipline team expanded on designs and reliability, as well as discussing challenges and successes in working with government bureaucracies, who are the company’s ultimate customer. In addition, the team didn’t shy away from admitting the project had its initial doubters in Rwanda, but soon the drones became dubbed “air ambulances” for their life-saving work.

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