Unmanned Drones Could Be A Game Changer For Healthcare Accessibility In Rural Areas

Drones, or unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAV), have received a bad rap lately. In the news for attacks on places possibly harboring terrorists, these vehicles are known for widespread bombings that are unable to differentiate between civilian and terrorist. However, these machines are simply aircrafts without a human pilot on board, directed by remote control or onboard computers, meaning these vehicles could be used for multiple other purposes.

One such application is changing the healthcare game in Africa. Although Africa is a continent with many health epidemics like HIV/AIDS, malaria, and ebola, for many countries, the biggest medical problem of all is the lack of access to basic healthcare.

Statistically, less than 50% of Africans have access to modern medical healthcare. Over 2.9 million children die each year due to lack of access to medical essentials, like vaccines, and over 150,000 pregnancy related deaths occur each year. Many rural villages are miles outside of the nearest big city, there are poor road conditions or no roads at all, rough terrain makes it difficult for regular vehicles to travel, and many rural health facilities are ill-equipped to store biomedical necessities like blood stores. 

It can take anywhere from 4-6 hours to transport necessary medical supplies to rural areas. For someone having an emergency, like a woman suffering from postpartum hemorrhaging - a common problem in rural Africa, that’s the difference between life and death. 

Zipline, a California-based robotics company, believes drones are one answer to Africa’s healthcare problem. Comprising a team of professionals from large tech and aeronautic companies like Google, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, they designed a fixed-wing drone to deliver medical essentials to rural health facilities. Known as “Zip”, this drone has a 2 meter wingspan and delivers small, parachute equipped packages to areas of need without having to land. Racing along at 100 km/hour, Zip can deliver a package in as little as 15 minutes.

This technology has the potential to erase barriers to access for countless critical medicines and save lives on a scale not previously possible,” says Keller Rinaudo, Zipline’s chief executive.

Zipline recently teamed up with the government in Rwanda to test Zip’s capability. Rwanda is called “the land of a thousand hills”, and their government is known to be open to innovation, making the country a perfect spot to test drone deliveries of medical supplies.

Zipline plans to make 50 to 150 deliveries of blood a day to 21 transfusing facilities within a 47-mile radius. These flights are scheduled to begin in late August or early September. They are also looking to add vaccines and other urgent supplies at a later date. 

Given the current negative reputation of drones, this technology still makes some countries nervous, especially since there is no regulation yet for fixed wing drones that fly out of sight. However, if Zipline’s inaugural tests in Rwanda go well, the future of healthcare in Africa will significantly change for the better.

Aptly named, Enclothed Cognition is the official Medelita blog for medical professionals interested in topics relevant to a discerning and inquisitive audience. Medelita was founded by a licensed clinician who felt strongly about the connection between focus, poise and appearance.

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