“Ziplining” Towards Greater Health Equity

Illustration by Lily Xu

Illustration by Lily Xu

In 2016, Delphine Twese Hamwe’s 2-year old daughter Ghislane was diagnosed with malaria in a local Rwandan clinic; doctors said that the malaria was attacking her blood cells. (1) By the time they reached the hospital, Ghislane’s body was lifeless. The doctors began to scramble to find extra units of red blood cells; however, they were in the Rwandan capital Kigali, a 3-hour drive from the hospital (2). At this time, a hospital technician sent a text message asking for multiple units; an automated message replied, informing them that the units of blood would arrive in 6 minutes (3). Not long after the text, a drone began circling around the hospital. Within minutes, it dropped a parachute filled with chilled packets of blood that ultimately saved her,  giving her a second chance at life (4).

Drones, like the one seen in this story, are becoming a revolutionary trend aiming to deliver medical supplies to the most remote areas of the world, places that lack  trained doctors and functional hospitals. Currently, the leader in this new technological development is the U.S. startup company Zipline. In March 2016, Zipline partnered with the Rwandan government to develop the first “commercial drone delivery service,” delivering crucial medical supplies to remote medical centers (5). This was especially effective since the poor road conditions of Rwanda prevented effective land transport.  Because Zipline’s drones are not limited by road conditions, they have been able to deliver more than 7,000 units of blood to over 21 hospitals, and these numbers will only continue to climb in the near future (6).

Keenan Wyrobek, the co-founder of Zipline, was inspired to create a medical drone when he visited the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania 2014, where he met a graduate student who designed a mobile alert system that could send emergency requests for medical supplies (7). However, as innovative as the idea was, Wybrock noticed that “there was no way for the government to fulfill these requests,” as doctors were forced to simply “[stare] at this list of names and the medical supplies [patients] need to survive” without taking any concrete action (8). When asked about the hurdles faced when creating Zipline, Wyrobek said, “we discovered that building and designing the technology is the easy part. The hard part is integrating with the national health system. We have an incredible partner in the government of Rwanda and are where we are today because of their focus, dedication, and commitment to excellence” (9).

As Zipline is being used to a great extent by the Rwandan government, the company has begun to advance its technology to cope with this proliferation of use. In fact, in early 2018, they developed what they claim to be the world’s fastest commercial delivery drone, which travels at a top speed of 128 km/hr (10). As Keller Rinaudo, the other co-founder of Zipline, claims, by overhauling their entire logistics system, they will be able to manage “500 flights a day out of a single center, compared with 50 previously,” with this ideology stemming from the fact that “the biggest [Zipline has] learned [in Africa] is that speed is everything” (11). Plus, these new drones will be able to carry heavier cargo, up to a max weight of 1.75 kilograms, reducing the need for multiple trips to the same locations (12).

As for the future of Zipline, the company hopes to expand their resources not only into different parts of Africa but also around the world. Rinaudo says, “We’ve shown that this technology can save lives aboard; now we’re going to show that it can save lives in the US too” (13). Hypothetically, Zipline could expand into rural parts of the United States, where healthcare access is not readily available. By investing in hubs near these rural areas, people living in these areas will not have to worry about having to travel to the nearest metropolis to afford adequate healthcare for their family. While an expansion to the US is not in the cards just yet, Zipline did expand into Tanzania in 2017, establishing a system of 2,000 daily deliveries from four distribution centers, covering an area similar to the combined size of Texas and Louisiana (14).

For their innovative methods on attacking the problem of health equity, Zipline received the Rock Health Invention of the Year in 2018 and was recognized by Fast Company in 2017 for being a “Top 10 Most Innovative Company in Social Good + Transportation” (15). Even as a newly-formed company, Zipline has made healthcare practitioners and experts reevaluate whether we are doing enough to ensure health equity around the world. While Zipline hasn’t solved the problem by any means, it is a small but crucial step in the right direction.

Edited by: Anthony Wu

Illustrated by: Lily Xu

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