Regulatory agencies, like the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), have never questioned the practicality of drones. They understand the value of being able to transport items from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible. For the FAA, it has always been a matter of public safety – the dangers around an unmanned aircraft flying above crowded cities. But when it comes to carrying lab samples or blood from one hospital to the other, regulatory agencies abroad have a difficult time saying no to drones – especially when the results are saving countless lives.
Partnerships with U.S. Drone Manufacturers
This sentiment of the Swiss Aviation Authority and the Rwandan government exactly – both countries deciding to partner with U.S. drone manufacturers for the benefit of public health. After teaming up with California-based drone startup Matternet, the Swiss Post and The Ticino EOC hospital group have successfully organized 70 autonomous flights delivering laboratory samples between two Swiss hospitals. After getting the thumbs up from Switzerland’s Federal Office for Civil Aviation in March, daily drone deliveries between the two hospitals have been a daily occurrence.
Rwanda & Zipline Partnership
A similar agreement between U.S. robotics firm Zipline and the Rwandan government took place in March of last year (2016) and the impact was immediate. With the goal of transporting blood from a distribution center to a remote hospital, Rwanda and Zipline successfully launched “the world’s first national drone delivery service.” In a country where postpartum hemorrhaging is “the leading cause of death for pregnant women,” a drone delivery service carries blood for female patients needing immediate transfusions. With the limited access to different blood types and without proper storage facilities, the on-demand delivery service is literally a life-saver.
Matternet’s Swiss Drone
As for the drones themselves, Matternet’s Swiss drone is equipped to carry loads of up to 2 kg (4.4 lbs), can travel up to 20 km (12 miles) away and has a top speed of 36 km/hr (22 mph). In the case of an emergency above the city of Lugano, Matternet’s drone has a parachute ready to deploy within a moment’s notice. The logistical process is rather seamless: one hospital loads up the drone with samples and launches the aircraft using a smartphone app guided by GPS. After locking in a predetermined route, infrared signals guide the drone to its final destination where hospital workers unload the samples.
Drones-in-Action for Public Health
The Rwandan operation, since it’s a bit more of a dire situation, involves a fleet of 15 autonomous drones (called “Zips”) that are capable of traveling 150 km (93 miles) and can carry 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs) of blood per trip. Since the trips average 75 km (47 miles) and are mostly over rural landscape, the drones are able to make “150 deliveries a day to 21 transfusion facilities in the Western half of Rwanda.” With order fulfillment taking place in 30 minutes, it’s no wonder that the Rwandan-Zipline partnership has been deemed a resounding success.
Swiss Post’s drone delivery service is still its trial phase but the hope is to someday make this an everyday service. The Rwandan drones continue to fly their route today and the plan is to add additional services to its blood transfusion drop offs.
Source: New Atlas