The possibility of getting a hot pizza or an anxiously awaited online order by drone appears to be heading toward reality. But one company aims to make a difference by delivering lifesaving blood and other medical supplies to people in need in remote regions in Africa.

Imagine you are 90 miles from the nearest source of blood and an accident has left you in need of a transfusion … now. In a developed country, blood can be delivered by courier services in minutes, but in remote regions of Rwanda, roads may not exist or become impassable. Only a third of Africans live within 1.2 miles of a road that is open year round. The roads that do exist can often be snarled with traffic and clinics and hospitals may lack the resources to get the supplies that they need. The Rwandan government has partnered with a U.S. firm to develop a drone program that enables clinics or hospitals to send a text message ordering a drone delivery of blood or medicine that could be there in 30 minutes even 90 miles away, no matter the road conditions.

In the western half of Rwanda, 21 transfusion clinics can use this drone service to order blood by text messaging. The autonomous drones developed by a California robotics firm, Zipline, are loaded and launched from a “nest” base in Muhunga in the geographic center of Rwanda. The flight path of the drone is programed and the drones fly to the clinic at about 180 miles per hour and drop the payload using a paper parachute from a low altitude. The drone’s paths are tracked using a tablet app. Each drone is the size of a large dog and can carry 3.5 pounds of blood or medicine and can make 50 to 150 deliveries every day.

One of Zipline’s founders came up with the idea for the drone service after a visit to Tanzania where he met a researcher who had developed a database where health workers could send text alerts if they needed blood or medications. The lack of transportation infrastructure meant that deliveries were often not able to reach the patients fast enough and people died. The Zipline drones which cost about as much as a motorcycle have the potential to solve this problem.

Like skipping the use of landlines and going straight to cellphones, some developing nations are exploring the use of drones for medical purposes. Rwanda is also developing the regulations for the use of drones to ensure that they are used safely. Some developing countries have the additional complication of unstable governments or insurgents placing the drones at risk.

While we in the U.S. are intrigued by getting our online orders delivered to our doorsteps, some are devising drone delivery systems to help those in the world that are in the most dire need of medical supplies. Unfortunately, it is inevitable that we will also see drones used for illegal and non-humanitarian needs, but some people will gain from this new and evolving technology and lives will be saved.

Medical Discovery News is a weekly radio and print broadcast highlighting medical and scientific breakthroughs hosted by professor emeritus Norbert Herzog and professor David Niesel, biomedical scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.

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