Will America Catch Up With East Africa in Adopting Medical Drones?

Will America catch up with East Africa in adopting this new technology? That’s up to our regulators.

East Africa now has the world’s most advanced drone delivery system for medical supplies. The question for America is whether we will follow these countries’ leads, thereby reducing costs and increasing efficiency of life-saving services in our own rural and remote areas.   

The Government of Tanzania and Zipline, a California manufacturer, have just announced that in early 2018, drones will begin flying critical and life-saving medical supplies to locations across that East African republic, whose 56 million people are spread across an area over half the size of Alaska. Zipline (flyzipline.com) is supported by, among others, Google Ventures, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Stanford University. Zipline will build and operate the system.

In October 2016, Zipline partnered with the Government of Rwanda to form the world’s first national medical drone delivery service. According to Zipline, Rwandan drones have since conducted 1,400 flights, traversing 62,000 miles, and delivering 2,600 units of blood. 

Zipline operates the only national daily drone delivery services in the world. In 2016, the company announced plans to initiate drone deliveries of medical supplies in remote areas of the United States. The company aims to tackle what it calls the “last-mile problem”—the difficulties of delivering medical supplies to rural or remote locations “due to lack of adequate transportation, communication or supply chain infrastructure.” However, commercial delivery services have not yet begun in the U.S.

While U.S. infrastructure is far ahead of that in Rwanda or Tanzania, millions of Americans are spread across immense tracts of rural and remote land. Difficulties in delivering emergency supplies to Appalachia, western Indian reservations, and disaster sites (like Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina), can cost lives and waste scarce resources. Even in more developed areas, critical deliveries can be slowed by traffic congestion and dangerous driving conditions, such as icy roads. In such circumstances, drones can reach critically ill patients not reachable by conventional means.

However, regulatory restrictions -- particularly from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) -- have slowed the adoption of drone deliveries to a crawl in America. Currently, FAA regulations restrict the number of drones each company can operate and also impose tight restrictions over drones’ trajectories. 

The special needs of remote areas of America are underscored by the existence of organizations like Remote Area Medical (RAMUSA.org), a Tennessee-based charitable organization that operates pop-up clinics in rural areas around the U.S., as well as some overseas.

In fact, a RAM clinic in Wise County, Virginia, near the Kentucky border, received the first FAA-approved drone delivery of medicines in the U.S in July 2015. That one-time delivery was operated by a different drone company -- Flirtey (flirtey.com). RAM, incidentally, is currently seeking approval from the Government of Guyana to experiment with medical drone deliveries in that South American country later this year.

Paradoxically, East Africa’s technological leap over the U.S. was made likelier by that region’s poor infrastructure and scarce resources. In contrast with developing countries, America’s wealth gives us the luxury of rejecting or obstructing cost-saving and potentially life-saving technologies.

Similarly, with poor landline telephone infrastructure, much of Sub-Saharan Africa cellular phone networks, electronic banking, and other digital services have in some ways surpassed the degree of penetration seen in developed countries.

The Tanzania-Zipline collaboration will open four distribution centers around that country. Altogether, these centers will have over 100 drones, capable of 2,000 flights per day. Each drone can carry 3.3 pounds of cargo at 68 miles per hour, with a round-trip range of just under 100 miles.

No drone infrastructure is required at the clinics receiving the blood transfusion supplies, emergency vaccines, HIV medications, antimalarials, sutures, IV tubes, and so forth. Supplies are dropped from the air at pre-assigned spots adjacent to clinics, with the drones remaining airborne. The clinics will order supplies via text message and receive packages within half an hour, on average.

Will America catch up with East Africa in adopting this new technology? That’s up to our regulators.