• A Californian company that delivers vital medical supplies by drone in Rwanda and Ghana is now providing clinics with PPE and coronavirus test samples.
  • The drones can deliver up to 85 km away, and arrive within 30 minutes.
  • A new program will explore similar deliveries in the United States.
  • Drones also used in China and Chile during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Think of delivery drones and you may picture Amazon packages being delivered.

But a US medical drone company has been getting blood and medical products to rural clinics and hospitals in Africa for several years – and is now focusing its attention on the battle against COVID-19.

Zipline's drone.
Drones are helping to deliver test kits and PPE to fight COVID-19.
Image: Zipline

Medicine for remote communities

An estimated 2 billion people lack access to basic medicines – partly because they live in remote locations.

To help solve this problem, drone company Zipline has pioneered medical deliveries to rural communities in Rwanda and Ghana. Its lightweight drones deliver vital packages to clinics up to 85 kilometres away. Trips that might have taken an entire day by car could take 30 minutes or less by drone.

Now the company is using its drone deliveries to support the coronavirus fight in Africa and aims to do the same in the US.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about drones?

The World Economic Forum is partnering with governments and companies to create flexible regulations that allow drones to be manufactured and used in various ways to help society and the economy.

Drones can do many wonderful things, but their upsides are often overshadowed by concerns about privacy, collisions and other potential dangers. To make matters worse, government regulations have not been able to keep up with the speed of technological innovation.

In 2017 the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution teamed up with the Government of Rwanda to draft the world’s first framework for governing drones at scale. Using a performance-based approach that set minimum safety requirements instead of equipment specifications, this innovative regulatory framework gave drone manufacturers the flexibility to design and test different types of drones. These drones have delivered life-saving vaccines, conducted agricultural land surveys, inspected infrastructure and had many other socially beneficial uses in Rwanda.

Today, the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is working with governments and companies in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America to co-design and pilot agile policies that bring all the social and economic benefits of drone technology while minimizing its risks.

Read more here, and contact us if you're interested in getting involved with the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution's pioneering work in the governance of emerging technologies.

A COVID-19 vision

Drones have already played an important role in the fight against COVID-19, from disinfecting streets in China, to supplying medicine to a small community in Chile.

When the coronavirus hit Africa, Zipline adapted its cargo. Its distribution centres in Ghana now hold stocks of personal protective equipment (PPE) and its drones also deliver COVID-19 test samples, CNN Business reported.

“We are stocking a whole bunch of COVID-19 products and delivering them to hospitals and health facilities, whenever they need them instantly,” Zipline CEO and Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur, Keller Rinaudo, told CNN Business.

Another way drones could help, Rinaudo believes, is delivering more directly to the elderly and vulnerable who need to self-isolate: “Suddenly there’s a dramatic need to extend the reach of the hospital network and the healthcare system closer to where people live,” he said. A neighbourhood drop-off point is being considered for those with chronic conditions who are often reliant on volunteers to collect and deliver medication.

Rinaudo thinks that drone deliveries could play a vital role both during the current crisis and in the coming months and years.

Elevating the conversation

The World Economic Forum, with partners including Zipline, the World Bank and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), have been raising awareness of how to accelerate the use of drones for good in Africa and beyond.

In early April, the Forum’s Aerospace and Drones community brought together more than 400 industry participants to discuss how drones can battle COVID-19 and how best to integrate them into supply-chains. David Moinina Sengeh, Chief Innovation Officer and Minister of Basic and Secondary Education for Sierra Leone, explained how drones can assist with data capture, medical supply-chain integration, and provide jobs for the developing tech sector.

Coming to America

Ironically for a company that began life in California and already has two distribution centres there, Zipline has no commercial operation in the United States. However, that may change.

In the coming weeks, Zipline will join two other companies - Matternet and Flytex - for an initiative using drones for COVID-19 response, using the technology to deliver PPE or medical supplies in three North Carolina cities.