Drones Will Soon Be Dropping Medicines to Save Lives in Rwanda

 
 
By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2016-05-09
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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    Drones Will Soon Be Dropping Medicines to Save Lives in Rwanda
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    Drones Will Soon Be Dropping Medicines to Save Lives in Rwanda

    A new project plans to use drones to deliver life-saving medicines, blood and vaccines to reduce juvenile mortality and the spread of malaria, among other health care issues.
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    UPS for the Logistics, Zipline for the Deliveries
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    UPS for the Logistics, Zipline for the Deliveries

    Ed Martinez (left), CEO of the UPS Foundation, which has allocated $800,000 to the drone project, and Zipline founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo explain the goals of the drone medicine operation. UPS already has the ecosystem in place to move time-sensitive items such as blood and vaccines in cold transit. Zipline's engineers build the drones and the takeoff and recovery systems; create the delivery routes; update GPS and other software; and run the delivery operations on-location as needed. Gavi CEO Dr. Seth Berkley attended this conference remotely from Geneva.
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    A Common Problem All Over Africa
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    A Common Problem All Over Africa

    Because of very few paved roadways, most of the giant continent of Africa is inaccessible by land vehicles at various times of the year. Frequent monsoons and hurricanes leave roads looking like this. Thus, delivery of life-saving medicines and vaccines must be done by air—trucks, autos and motorcycles can never accomplish the job that needs to be done.
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    Strategic Locations Reach Most of Rwanda
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    Strategic Locations Reach Most of Rwanda

    Using 20 Zipline launching locations, called nests, the project can reach about 11 million of the 12 million Rwandans. A typical Zipline drone mission lasts less than 30 minutes from launch to recovery. The vehicle will guide itself to the drop location, circle it once or twice to get an accurate reading on the wind, drop the payload within a space about the size of three parking spaces and then head immediately back to its nest, or base.
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    Can't See, but It Knows Exactly Where It's Going
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    Can't See, but It Knows Exactly Where It's Going

    A Zipline drone can fly for about 2.5 hours on its two batteries, has a range of about 120 km and can reach speeds of 100 km/hr, or 60 mph. It flies between 100 feet and 400 feet high and can barely be heard as it moves overhead. If flying in a conflicted area, the drones are very difficult to shoot down because they are such a small, fast target, Rinaudo said.
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    Launch, Recovery Sites All Fit Into Standard Shipping Containers
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    Launch, Recovery Sites All Fit Into Standard Shipping Containers

    Rinaudo, being interviewed by Benny Evangelista of the San Francisco Chronicle, stands in front of one of the standard 16-foot-long shipping containers that are used to transport the launch and recovery equipment. Two of these can make a "nest" that can be run by only four people.
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    Drone Takes Shape in the Shop
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    Drone Takes Shape in the Shop

    Zipline drone-building team leader Ryan Oksenhorn shows one of the vehicles to reporters. The twin-engine, battery-powered craft has a wingspan of 6 feet, is constructed of light but extremely strong carbon-based material, and can be redeployed within minutes after a battery change.
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    A Small Box That Can Save Someone's Life
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    A Small Box That Can Save Someone's Life

    A Zipline staff member demonstrates how the payload, including a small parachute, is packed into the drone vehicle. Testing for better parachutes is an ongoing pursuit by the team; they need to be inexpensive, recyclable and able to deploy effectively. "Even if a chute doesn't open in time on the drop, the payload is packaged carefully so that it can survive even a hard landing," Rinaudo said.
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    Zipline Team Writes Virtually All Its Own Software
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    Zipline Team Writes Virtually All Its Own Software

    Zipline software team member Jeremy Schwartz explains the development process: Each of the red and white boxes contains all the same hardware and software as the actual drones, and they are tested as if they are on an actual mission. Team members track them in testing on a special iPad app they've written using Google Earth and other components. In fact, virtually all the software in the entire project was coded from scratch; the team started with a set of open-source and other components but found it inadequate for their needs.
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    Ready for a Launch
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    Ready for a Launch

    From its secret site in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco, Zipline gets ready for another drone launch. The catapult unit is easily portable inside a standard 16-foot-long shipping container.
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    And Away She Goes
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    And Away She Goes

    The drone's launch is impressively fast, thanks to its custom-built, compressed-air catapult. Reporters were not allowed to photograph the recovery operation because it uses proprietary methodology.
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    Payload Delivered
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    Payload Delivered

    Rinaudo journeys out to the drop location several hundred feet away and opens the cardboard box with its precious blood and medicine. It easily survived a rougher-than-usual drop due to a parachute malfunction.
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    Just the Start of a Worldwide Drone Program
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    Just the Start of a Worldwide Drone Program

    The Rwandan project is expected to be only Phase 1 of a global network of drones that will be used to deliver precious medicines and vaccines to previously inaccessible parts of the world.
 

Drone aircraft and multicopters get their share of attention from news coverage of their use in conflicted areas of the world, especially in the Middle East, where they are used by U.S. military to take out specific targets in the fight against terrorism. However, there are many use cases other than war for these unmanned vehicles. One use nobody can disparage is the delivery of life-saving medicine, blood and vaccines to extremely difficult-to-reach parts of the world. The government of Rwanda, faced with a decades-long struggle to reduce the number of juvenile deaths and mothers dying in childbirth and the spread of malaria, has decided to be proactive on this front. It has hired a coalition that includes the United Parcel Service Foundation, the Gavi Vaccine Alliance (funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and drone-building startup Zipline of Menlo Park, Calif. Zipline is backed by Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, Paul Allen, Jerry Yang and Stanford University. A small group of journalists was invited to a test demonstration in the hills south of San Francisco on May 5; this eWEEK slide show features highlights of that demo. Rwanda and the project coalition hope to have this up and flying on a daily basis this summer.

 
 
 
 
 
Chris Preimesberger Chris Preimesberger was named Editor-in-Chief of Features & Analysis at eWEEK in November 2011. Previously he served eWEEK as Senior Writer, covering a range of IT sectors that include data center systems, cloud computing, storage, virtualization, green IT, e-discovery and IT governance. His blog, Storage Station, is considered a go-to information source. Chris won a national Folio Award for magazine writing in November 2011 for a cover story on Salesforce.com and CEO-founder Marc Benioff, and he has served as a judge for the SIIA Codie Awards since 2005. In previous IT journalism, Chris was a founding editor of both IT Manager's Journal and DevX.com and was managing editor of Software Development magazine. His diverse resume also includes: sportswriter for the Los Angeles Daily News, covering NCAA and NBA basketball, television critic for the Palo Alto Times Tribune, and Sports Information Director at Stanford University. He has served as a correspondent for The Associated Press, covering Stanford and NCAA tournament basketball, since 1983. He has covered a number of major events, including the 1984 Democratic National Convention, a Presidential press conference at the White House in 1993, the Emmy Awards (three times), two Rose Bowls, the Fiesta Bowl, several NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments, a Formula One Grand Prix auto race, a heavyweight boxing championship bout (Ali vs. Spinks, 1978), and the 1985 Super Bowl. A 1975 graduate of Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., Chris has won more than a dozen regional and national awards for his work. He and his wife, Rebecca, have four children and reside in Redwood City, Calif.Follow on Twitter: editingwhiz
 
 
 
 
 
 

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