UAE is hub for life-saving drone delivery service in Africa

UPS and robotics firm Zipline are using Dubai as a hub for delivering vital blood supplies to remove villages in Rwanda.

Drones sent out to remote parts of Rwanda from Dubai are delivering supplies to aid blood transfusions in medical emergencies. Courtesy Gregg Svingen
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DUBAI // Humanitarian work in Dubai is giving drones a good name, as the aerial devices are being used to carry blood supplies to remote parts of Africa.

Scores of drones are being shipped out from the Dubai headquarters of logistics company UPS in its partnership with US robotics firm Zipline.

The drones deliver up to 150 packets of blood a day to 21 hospitals in remote villages of Rwanda, after cargo flights of the machines took off from Jebel Ali for the first time last week.

And it has been so successful thus far that there are plans to also drop vaccinations into remote regions.

“Public health authorities have taken note, as have other companies working in this field,” said Gregg Svingen, of UPS. “The US$1.1 million we put into this project was well spent.”

The drones have provided a solution to the “last-mile problem”, where remote areas miss out on the delivery of medicine because there are no means of transport, or ways to keep it from spoiling while on the road.

Each drone can fly 150 kilometres carrying 1.5 kilograms of blood in all weather.

They make deliveries by descending and dropping medicine at a designated “mailbox” near the health centres.

Post-partum bleeding is the leading cause of death for pregnant Rwandan women.

Because there are many different blood products and no way to accurately predict which will be needed, many transfusion clinics do not keep all the blood they may need in stock. And during Rwanda’s long rainy season, many roads become impassible.

The result is that all too often someone in need of a lifesaving transfusion cannot have the blood they need.

While Rwanda’s drone delivery service will initially focus on blood, an international partnership between UPS, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and Zipline will quickly expand the range of medicine and vaccines that can be delivered.

“This project will also act as an important test for whether drones are a viable way to improve targeted vaccine delivery around the world,” said Dr Seth Berkley, the chief executive of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

The alliance has received $33m of funding from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, between 2011 and last year.

“Every child deserves basic, lifesaving vaccines,” Dr Berkley said. “This technology could be an important step towards ensuring they get them.”

nwebster@thenational.ae