On July 17, 2015, a hexacopter, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) which functions like a miniature helicopter (with its 6 rotors), flew over and through the mountainous terrain of Wise County, Virginia, and lowered a shipment of medications to a temporary clinic provided by Remote Area Medical. This Australian hexacopter was the first such medical flight sanctioned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Since that time, the U.S. Department of Transportation has selected 10 state and local governments to test drones as part of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program. Many of these programs focus on delivering packages of health care products.
Although the U.S. is still early in its integration of drones into its airspace, thousands of medical flights have occurred in Rwanda since that country started a nationwide drone system in late 2016. In 2017, Zipline and Rwanda’s neighbor, Tanzania, announced plans to establish a similar system across their country. In late 2018, another Australian company, Swoop Aero, began delivering vaccines in the Pacific nation of Vanuatu.
Zipline has documented lifesaving experiences from its Rwandan operation. For example, Alice Mutimiutugye began bleeding severely during childbirth. The nearest supply of blood that matched her type was too many hours away to save her life by car. Instead the blood reached her a half-hour by a drone after the clinic placed the order. Ms. Mutimiutugye survived and was able to leave the hospital with her baby.
Dutch developers are testing drone-borne defibrillators for heart attack victims.These conceptual designs anticipate pilotless ambulance copters which will carry emergency medical technicians to stricken patients in remote areas and transporting them to hospitals.
Why United States Was So Late
The mystery to many of us is why such technology caught on so much earlier in “third world” countries such as Rwanda, Tanzania, and Vanuatu, but not in the United States and other industrialized countries? Is our excuse that we don’t need this technology as much as the poor countries? But there are also numerous poor areas in our own country that can use such service as well as large portions of our country that are sparsely settled, with people living far from urban medical centers. Weather and traffic conditions sometimes make conventional travel difficult.
Too many people still associate drones with killing. Some have seen too many television depictions of our enemies being wiped out by drones. But there are so many wonderful humanitarian uses for drones such as the medical field. Such proliferation of uses of drones is bound to have a huge impact on our people and open their minds to the importance of flying robots.
Advantages Drones Bring
The economic advantage of drones should interest everyone! And this is partly why so many of our industries become aware of what drones offer, especially now with hexacopter drones. When we consider transportation, the margins of savings in comparing drones with any other transportation vehicle is very significant. So the advantage of using drones, and now that they come in so many different forms and sizes, they can pretty much meet any challenge and need.
One of the most important features that drones offer is safety, which is a serious concern when there are issues of transportation. Conventional modes of transport always put drivers and passengers at risk. It is hardly unusual that drivers are injured or die transporting supplies, passengers or patients. Where current means of transportation are hazardous, drones are not. Accidents that occur with drones may result in an economic loss, but not the loss of human life.
With physical and social distancing and community lockdowns, because of the danger of COVID-19, the blood supply, as well as other supplies, are low. Drones could be used to meet the delivery demand in such cases.
Contributions of Zipline & Drones
With its centralized distribution model, Zipline has helped Rwanda to essentially eliminate wasted (expired) blood products. Keller Rinaudo, CEO of Zipline, claimed, “We probably waste more blood [in the United States] than is used in all of Rwanda.”
Zipline points out that their drones are able to reduce human involvement in the supply chain, while reducing hospital overcrowding by making it more practical for non-urgent patients to receive care in local clinics closer to home. As Keller Rinaudo puts it,
“When everyone’s staying at home, that’s the ideal time for robots to be making deliveries in a contactless way.”*
As COVID-19 continues to rage, the fear is what might happen in underdeveloped countries where people live in densely populated areas with people who live in close quarters and can’t just stay in their homes for a couple of months, where they are less capable of lock-downs.
Keller Rinaudo says that Zipline is stocking as many COVID-19 related products as possible in preparing for things getting worse in many parts of the world, especially underdeveloped countries. They are trying to ascertain whether they will be able to deliver their medical supplies to neighborhood drop-off points, or directly to homes.
The combination of telemedicine and home or neighborhood delivery of medical supplies by drones means people can stay home. Keller Rinaudo makes the following claims:
“This is a transformation of the healthcare system that’s already happening and needs to happen anyway. COVID is just accelerating it.”*
“In the U.S. there’s this sense that this technology is impossible, whereas it’s already operating at multi-national scale, serving thousands of hospitals and health facilities, and it’s completely boring to the people who are benefiting from it. People in the U.S. have really not caught on that this is something that’s reliable and can dramatically improve our response to crises like this.”*
Drones can be a tremendous asset to first responders who can quickly provide an aerial perspective that highlights dangers and opportunities in a crisis situation faster than just eyes on the ground.
The list of practical applications for the use of drones is endless!
What the country, and the world needs, are visionaries like Keller Rinaudo who makes things happen!
Josh Spires, “DJI’s COVID-19 US disaster relief program statistics” (April 3, 2020)
“Autonomous Robots Are Helping Kill Coronavirus in Hospitals” (April 3, 2020)