Al-Husseini: How we're using drones to deliver blood and save lives

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A technician launches a Zip drone in central Rwanda. The Zip carries blood and medical supplies to hospitals and other healthcare centers across the country.

"… People are worried that a technologically backward Africa is falling behind. That attitude couldn't be more wrong." -- Keller Rinaudo

There exists a fleet of autonomous aircraft that deliver blood and medical supplies to hospitals and other health centers on request. This delivery system operates on a national scale, making it the largest aerial drone delivery system of its kind worldwide. Earlier in the year, it was announced that this same delivery system would be expanded to provide medical products to millions of citizens in the otherwise difficult to reach areas of the country. Perhaps the most incredible part of this story is the country itself. One might guess that such a large and advanced distribution system would be operating in Japan, South Korea, Germany, or the United States. You, like I, may be surprised to learn that the country responsible is Rwanda.

Rwanda, in coordination with the firm Zipline, has rolled-out an impressive delivery system that allows medical centers to request supplies when needed. Those items are then parachuted down from one of a fleet of drones all named Zip within 20 to 30 minutes. Each Zip is battery-powered, and can accelerate from zero to 62 miles per hour in half a second. This distribution system ensures that Rwanda's blood supply is centralized, which is critical given that blood has a short shelf-life and must be stored in a particular manner to be kept viable. As a direct result, in the nine months following the implementation of Zips, the use of blood products has increased substantially, while the amount of blood stocked in the country's health centers has decreased; additionally, zero units of blood have expired at any of these centers.

What more, patients in emergencies are more quickly able to receive the sometimes uncommon or unavailable medical supplies they need. Zipline founder Keller Rinaudo points to one such example in his 2017 TED Talk. A few months ago, a mother at a Zipline-serviced Rwandan hospital gave birth via C-section. This led to complications, and the mother was soon bleeding out. Fortunately, medical professionals were able to transfuse her with a few units of her blood type delivered by a previous Zip. Soon that amount too became inadequate. The doctors overseeing the operation quickly called the Zipline distribution to request multiple emergency orders. The patient was soon thereafter stabilized.

The most valuable benefit innovative companies like Zipline provide will be realized several years down the road. A throng of teenagers and children from nearby communities can be spotted watching as each Zipline drone lands post-delivery. Today's young adult spectators will be tomorrow's engineers, continuing to advance disruptive technology in ways that befit their communities. Africa is often knocked for its corruption, instability, and poverty. Rwanda and Zipline show us a different portrait, one where Africa's smaller economies can out-innovate larger, more affluent ones.

Mahdi Al-Husseini is the volunteer organizer of TEDxDouglasville, a senior at Georgia Tech studying biomedical engineering and public policy, and a U.S. Army cadet.

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