Drone-based blood deliveries in Tanzania to be funded by UK

By Beth Nyaga

The UK government is to fund a trial of drone-based deliveries of blood and other medical supplies in Tanzania.

The goal is to radically reduce the amount of time it takes to send stock to health clinics in the African nation by road or other means.

The scheme involves Zipline, a Silicon Valley start-up that began running a similar service in Rwanda in October.

Experts praised that initiative but cautioned that “cargo drones” are still of limited use to humanitarian bodies.

The Department for International Development (Dfid) has not said how much money will be invested in the Tanzanian effort or for how long.

It also announced plans to fund tests of drones in Nepal to map areas of the country prone to damage from extreme weather, so help prepare for future crises.

“This innovative, modern approach ensures we are achieving the best results for the world’s poorest people and delivering value for money for British taxpayers,” commented the International Development Secretary Priti Patel.

Parachute deliveries

Zipline’s drones – called Zips – are small fixed-wing aircraft that are fired from a catapult and follow a pre-programmed path using GPS location data.

The advantage of the design over multi-rotor models is that the vehicles can better cope with windy conditions and stay airborne for longer. In theory, they can fly up to about 180 miles (290km) before running out of power, although Zipline tries to keep round trips to about half that distance.

Their drawback is that they require open space to land – in Zip’s case an area about the size of two car parking slots.

Zipline gets round this issue by having its drones descend to heights of about 5m (16.4ft) when they reach their destinations and then release their loads via paper parachutes. Afterwards, they regain altitude and return to base before coming to rest.

The aircraft fly below 500ft (152m) to avoid the airspace used by passenger planes.

Tanzania, Rwanda and Malawi – which uses a different type of drone for medical deliveries – all take a permissive approach to unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV] regulations, helping make them attractive places for such trials.

Earlier in the year, Tanzania also authorised the use of drones in its Tarangire National Park as part of an effort to deter animal poachers.

Saved lives

Dfid estimates that flying blood and medical supplies by drone from out of Tanzania’s capital, Dodoma, could save $58,000 (£47,400) a year compared to sending them by car or motorcycle.

But a spokeswoman suggested that the time savings were more crucial.

“Flights are planned to start in early 2017, and when they do it is estimated that [the] UAVs could support over 50,000 births a year, cutting down the time mothers and new-borns would have to wait for life-saving medicine to 19 minutes – reduced from the 110 minutes traditional transport methods would take,” she explained.

The Ifakara Health Institute – which specialises in treatments for malaria, HIV, tuberculosis as well as neonatal health issues – will be the local partner.

  

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