How Zipline aims to drive timely delivery of medical supplies using drone technology

Access to medical commodities by patients especially in cases of emergency has been posing a serious challenge in healthcare delivery in most developing countries such as Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy.

Today, a considerable percentage of Nigerians live in remote communities which sometimes are cut off by bad roads and river bodies, and this makes it difficult for such people to access medical products in cases of emergency. This has led to patients resorting to self-medication, which could come with dire consequences.

Whereas in some other climes, access to medical supplies is a top priority as medical facilities and qualified medical personnel are always available to cater to emergencies. Also, medical supplies are made easy through the aid of technology, but for those in this part of the world, it has become a tall order.

In the midst of all these comes a beacon of hope on the horizon as Zipline Company, an aerial logistics company specialised in delivering medical commodities have put plans in motion to launch its pilot phase operation in Kaduna and Cross Rivers States.

The journey of Zipline in Africa has already commenced in Rwanda and Ghana. Both governments accepted the use of Zipline’s technology in delivering blood and medical commodities to communities that are far from the city centers. The process has gained huge tractions.

This healthcare supply chain of using drones technology will berth in the Northern State of Kaduna, Nigeria come September 2021, says Daniel Marfo, Zipline Senior Vice President for Africa.

With the collaboration of Gavi (the vaccine alliance company), courier companies, Kaduna and Cross River State Governments, Zipline will render aerial logistics services that focus on delivering medical commodities to remote areas with aim of increasing product availability, service delivery to patients.

Marfo said the company has an ambitious plan to ensure it remove all barriers associated with the delivery of medical commodities to health facilities in Kaduna and Cross River States.

He said the company has built unmanned aerial drones to deliver medical commodities such as blood products to those who need them the most.

Marfo said that integrating aerial logistics into the states routine ground transport will allow for maximum coverage in all areas.

“We will soon start delivering COVID-19 vaccines, medicine supplies, pharmaceuticals, blood plasma, all kinds of medicines to these two states and many others across Africa’s most populous nation, in the weeks and months ahead,” Marfo says.

Continuing, he explains: “What this will do is that in minutes, we can launch a drone laden with a box of medicines from Calabar for instance, which will arrive in Obubra, Obudu or Bekwarra in minutes. This will cut out delays in delivering drugs to under-served, far-flung communities due to bad roads, traffic or other impediments one can encounter through road travel. Our mission is to provide every human on earth with instant access to vital medical supplies.”

The aim, Marfo says, was to make sure that lives are not lost through logistical impediments.

Read also: Zipline Company set to launch drone delivery of medical supplies in Kaduna

Deployment of Drone Technology

Zipline drones are equipped with all the safety features one can think of. Besides the fact that it is unmanned, it has all other qualities of an airplane; two batteries, wings, and two propellers. One of these is always redundant and comes in handy in the rare chance the other fails.

The drone can only fly planned routes approved in advance by national aviation authorities, so it can’t be used by anyone outside of Zipline or sent somewhere it is not supposed to be. And when a drone in flight encounters extremely bad weather or any technical fault for which the drone cannot continue on its route, it deploys its inbuilt parachute, making it to safely land at its present location while at the same time communicating to the operators at the distribution site to retrieve it. The drones are also able to fly in all kinds of weather; both at day and night.

During emergencies, Zipline is able to deliver blood and other products in a reliable and time-saving manner to save the lives of people. Health facilities do not need to store medicines in large quantities which sometimes go to waste as a result of expiry as Zipline becomes a central hub to distribute evenly to those who need them.

Countries will continue to invest heavily in health care, and there is evidence on the ground to suggest the continuous investment of the governments of Ghana and Rwanda in respect of the health delivery system. But when available, technology comes in handy to do what might have taken the ‘future’ to do.

This technology is not only for Africa as it has already been deployed in North Carolina is used in the delivery of Covid-19 personal protective equipment (PPES).

Improving supplies across the health system

On benefits of the technology to the Ghanaian community where it’s already operational, Florence Haruna, performance operations lead, Zipline Ghana, said the company carries 95 percent of typical outpatient prescription shipments and 75 percent of typical medical-surgical products to far-flung communities across Ghana on drones.

According to Haruna, “On a typical day, we do an average of 150 deliveries to hospital campuses, outpatient practices, and patients’ homes across Ghana”.

Reiterating the successes of the operation of the facility in Ghana and Rwanda, Marfo insists that the coming of the facility in Kaduna and Cross Rivers States will offer a reduction in overall supply chain expenses.

In his presentation of the scales of operation, Marfo revealed with the Zipline technology, up to 95 percent wastage reduction will be eliminated and ensure reduction in expiries and optimisation of safety stock, adding that Zipline Company will ease service to all hard to reach facilities.

“The operation will offer a reliable cold chain infrastructure ready to use, delivered within an hour to the health facility, add new scalable warehouses, good distribution practices; empower supply chain planning by improving forecasting and creating more flexible tolerances,” he said.

The economic gains of Zipline drone technology

With the setting up of this $1.5 million investment in infrastructure and equipment, Kaduna State and Cross Rivers will benefit from 100 percent local talent employment opportunity.

Marfo maintains that the facility will be managed by qualified indigenes of the state and will present the avenue to learn from cutting-edge technology.

Also, the Zipline facility offers two times multiplier effects with its spending on housing, food service vendors, and partnership with local suppliers that create opportunities to improve the economy.

He further noted that using the safest drone logistics service, Zipline’s on-demand service ensures products are readily available at health facilities.

“Technology has opened the door to new possibilities – being able to connect with a doctor through your phone and now, receiving medications at your doorstep via drone,” he said.

There is also technical knowledge transfer, increased collaboration with international partners, donors, and tech companies. Other economic benefits include the development of specialised skills because drone technology is an emerging field as every medical product is under 60 minutes away for 1100 health facilities.

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