Drones Deliver Blood Quickly to Remote Global Hospitals

Marcia Frellick

November 09, 2017

A California startup is serving thousands of people in Rwanda by using drones to fly units of blood to patients in crisis. (Courtesy of Zipline International)

Keenan Wyrobek and Zipline International, the San Francisco–based drone-delivery company he cofounded, are helping to solve a problem that has long plagued doctors in some of the world's most remote regions: getting blood to patients in time to save lives when roads are impassable.

Keenan Wyrobek (Courtesy of TEDMED)

The company has delivered more than 4100 units of blood in Rwanda since it started operating just over a year ago, in October 2016, Wyrobek reported at TEDMED 2017 in Palm Springs, California.

"This is a solution to a problem that can improve healthcare for billions of people, and it did not require a breakthrough in medical science" or a billion-dollar research and development budget, he said.

A typical drone delivery from the distribution center takes 15 to 45 minutes, he told Medscape Medical News. Before the service, trucks had to navigate dirt roads that were often washed out during the long rainy season. Retrieval and delivery could take hours. And sometimes the family members of a patient at one hospital would be sent with a cooler to another hospital to try to pick up units of blood when supplies ran out.

About 40% of the blood is used for postpartum hemorrhaging. "With blood, it's very easy to save the mother," Wyrobek said. "Without blood, there's almost nothing they can do."

Another 40% of the blood is used to treat patients with severe anemia related to malaria, which is prevalent in the region.

The company's first distribution center, in Rwanda, operates 7 days a week and serves nearly half a million people who rely on 21 hospitals in the western half of the country. The team just broke ground on a second center, which will serve the eastern half of the country.

This will ensure that all doctors — no matter how remote — have access to the supplies they need.

Early next year, the company, working in partnership with the Rwandan government, will launch an even larger drone-delivery system in Tanzania, Wyrobek reported. With four Tanzanian distribution centers, more than 10 million people will be within range of on-demand deliveries.

"This will ensure that all doctors — no matter how remote — have access to the supplies they need," he said.

Before launching the service, team members traveled to the communities they wanted to serve in Africa and Central America to get a read on the biggest challenges.

"Doctors shared their torment at losing patients they knew they could save," Wyrobek said. "They knew the treatments, they just didn't have the supplies."

Among the challenges were rainy seasons that last 8 to 10 months, small creeks that turn into impassable rivers after storms, dirt roads that become mud, and unreliable electricity, which is needed to refrigerate blood and vaccines.

All these obstacles could be overcome with drones.

There were some initial problems. For example, a delivery hit the ground with too much force, so the packaging was redesigned. And Zipline International originally planned to make deliveries after storms had passed, but customers made it clear that medical emergencies could not wait for the weather to clear.

Now, when an order comes to the distribution center, the team pulls the blood from the onsite inventory and passes the packed units to a flight operator, who puts it into a "Zip" — a miniature plane with a 10-foot wingspan — and launches the unmanned drone. Moments before delivery, the doctor gets a message that the package is coming.

The aircraft-carrier-meets-bouncy-castle landing platform (Courtesy of TEDMED)

After delivery, the Zip flies back and lands "on a landing system we affectionately call 'aircraft carrier meets bouncy castle'," he said, drawing laughter and a round of applause from the audience.

At busy times, there can be five Zips in the air making deliveries. Because the orders are on-demand, expired products are no longer stacked two stories high in warehouses, which team members witnessed in some parts of the region.

"Zero units of blood have expired at any of the hospitals we serve," Wyrobek said. "Even in the United States, that has never been achieved."

Zipline International is currently the largest drone-delivery network in the world. In Rwanda, the company started with blood products but is now moving into the delivery of vaccines and pharmaceuticals.

"That's an exciting shift for us because vaccines and pharmaceuticals are used by not only hospitals, but primary clinics as well," he said.

The company is in talks with several governments, including some in Central America. Regulatory approval to fly and certification to store and handle blood products are issues that have to be negotiated.

Down the road, Wyrobek said, he would love to support outbreak response. In the Ebola crisis, for instance, people delivering supplies became a vector. Drones could remove the dangers of human delivery. Disaster response is another area that could benefit from such a distribution network.

And 50 years after the polio vaccine was developed, the world is still trying to eradicate the disease, he pointed out.

"We have the medicine, but we have not solved all the practical barriers to get it to those who need it," he said.

With solutions such as drone delivery, "the next lifesaving vaccine could achieve worldwide eradication in months, not decades," Wyrobek said. "Some day we will be sure that no patients will ever die simply because the lifesaving medical treatment they needed failed to arrive in time."

Wyrobek is cofounder and head of product and engineering for Zipline International.

TEDMED 2017. Presented November 2, 2017.

Follow Medscape on Twitter @Medscape and Marcia Frellick @mfrellick

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