Zipline International, a c-drone startup based in California with extensive medical logistics experience in Africa, inaugurated on April 24 its regular service in Ghana at a ceremony in Omenako with the country’s vice-president, Dr Mahamudu Bawumia, and representatives from infrastructure-building donors including Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pfizer and The UPS Foundation. The ceremony was witnessed by dignitaries including Osagyefuo Amoatia Ofori Panin, the Okyenhene (traditional king) of eastern Ghana, Kwaku Agyeman-Manu the Minister for Health, and Zipline co-founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo.
The firm will run a continuous 24-hour/7-day all-weather service from Omenako and three other planned distribution centers, delivering to 2,000 hospitals and clinics in the country. 12 million people out of a population of 30 million will be served by the network. The distribution centers will be staffed by Ghanaian engineers, health care professionals and logistics personnel. The project will be financed by private sector donors.
Vaccines, blood products and critical medecines will be dispatched on demand from the four centers, three in the south and one in the north of Ghana. Each center will have 30 drones with a 500-flight capacity per day, covering 20,000km2 (7,700mi2) in an 80km (50mi) radius; initial estimates are for 600 flights per day across the four centers, which will be regularly restocked with emergency medical supplies. Cold-chain conditions are respected at the centers and in packaging, with three units of blood fitting into each 1.8kg (4lb) payload. Multiple flights are monitored by remote pilots at the distribution center. More than one c-drone can be dispatched in quick succession to a single destination if necessary.
The Zipline system allows preregistered medical personnel in clinics and hospitals to place orders for medicines or blood products by text message or through an app from a cellphone, and to receive tracking updates. The c-drone fuselage stored in a rack is loaded with the packet, placed on a catapult for the fixed wing and battery pack to be attached with a preflight check, then launched to fly autonomously Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) at up to 110kph (70mph) at a predefined altitude to the clinic or hospital, where the drone descends in long arcs, releases a the packet with a parachute, then ascends for the flight back to the distribution center. The time from order to delivery is about 30 minutes. Upon return the c-drone is captured by a large netted arrestor, retrieved and readied for the next flight, with fuselages, wings and battery packs stored separately to facilitate handling.
Keller Rinaudo, CEO of Zipline said:
Millions of people across the world — in both developed and developing countries — die each year because they can’t get the medicine they need when they need it. That’s why Zipline is building the first logistics system on the planet to serve all people equally. Access to vital health products, worldwide, is hampered by the last mile problem — the difficulty of supplying medicines from central storage to remotely located patients when and where they need it. Zipline’s drone delivery service is dedicated to expanding healthcare access and saving lives around the globe. Zipline’s service in Ghana will be the largest drone delivery network of any kind in history and is expected to increase patients’ access, reduce waste and save lives.
The c-drone, equipped with two propellers, has redundant power, motors, communication, and navigation systems. A ballistic parachute deploys in case of a serious incident during flight.
The government has assured citizens that the Fly-To-Save-A-Life Medical Drone Project will not replace the existing logistics supply chain system, but is meant to improve emergency services, particularly for rural residents. The system reduces medical waste by centralizing storage of perishable vaccines and blood products while assuring quick delivery to hospitals and clinics when necessary.
Zipline has made thousands of deliveries in Rwanda, starting regular service there in October 2016 and recently expanding to a second distribution center, with nearly total coverage of the country. The company is poised to begin regular service in the US state of North Carolina.
Developing countries in Africa and elsewhere have seen groundbreaking adoption of regular c-drone BVLOS flights in relatively uncluttered airspace and compelling humanitarian use cases. In Malawi, UNICEF worked with government ministers to establish drone regulations for the airspace; an air corridor opened in 2017 links hospitals in the north and south of the country (see our interview with Judith Sherman). UNICEF has also worked in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, the central Asian country Kazakhstan, and on Thursday announced new drone testing corridors in Sierra Leone and Namibia. In Tanzania, the Lake Victoria Challenge has seen BVLOS flights between communities on the shores of the lake basin by Wingtra, Wingcopter (DHL Parcelcopter), and others.