Delivering medical supplies by drone
October 11, 2017 6:58 AM   Subscribe

The company Zipline have built a drone delivery system for medical supplies. For areas of the world where road infrastructure is limited, this service can cut delivery times from four hours to fifteen minutes. They have been running in Rwanda for over a year and are about to launch in Tanzania.
posted by Stark (20 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I just hope this doesn't turn out to be another Theranos. Mostly because of all the VC money being thrown at this, but also because of the dynamics of US aid in the region, I'm a little skeptical. Rwanda and Tanzania have been target countries for techbro NGO boosterism lately, and there seems to be a lot of opacity surrounding Zipline's presence in these countries; interviews are always with Rinaudo and every article about it seems to just use the company's own promo pics.

Even if they're doing what they say, as with other UAV projects, the potential surveillance capabilities of these drones make them attractive targets for state and non-state actors.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:00 AM on October 11 [5 favorites]


I can see how this would be a great way to not break the 'cold chain' for heat sensitive vaccines too.
posted by Bee'sWing at 8:15 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


I get the feeling this could have been done years ago with trained animals, whether flying or running. Also some kind of ballistic delivery system that launches things inside big inflatable bubbles from an air cannon.
posted by w0mbat at 8:56 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


I just hope this doesn't turn out to be another Theranos.

I see zero similarity. Theranos rested on empty promises of game-changing innovation. It was never clear how Theranos would accomplish any of its medical testing magic. This company just makes purpose-built delivery drones, which is something lots of companies have done or are working on. Once you get past the sci-fi feel of the word "drone," this is a pretty routine business idea, with no Theranos-like magicthink.

there seems to be a lot of opacity surrounding Zipline's presence in these countries

The statistics they have just published are more transparency than I would expect from an early-stage startup. Sure, the media hasn't deployed investigative resources to verify their claims, but possibly because there is nothing to merit that yet. I mean, there is nothing that weird about launching medical supplies on fixed-wing drones over dozens of miles, so there is no reason at this point to write some exposé investigative takedown thinkpiece. The best attempt at anti-techbro concern trolling I can find seems to be this piece, the point of which seems to be "but what if the VCs just gave their money to infrastructure projects? Might that be better?"

the potential surveillance capabilities of these drones make them attractive targets for state and non-state actors.

Uh no. This is a generic concern troll. Paul Kagame, like anyone else with a credit card and an internet connection, can buy vastly more cost effective surveillance systems. The idea that a handful of fixed-wing, zipline launched drones optimized for small package delivery would move the needle on a government's surveillance capacity is ludicrous.
posted by andrewpcone at 9:09 AM on October 11 [10 favorites]


Or we could teleport them medicines via quantum entanglement!

I mean it's got to be easier than building a road in the middle of flipping Tanzania. How the hell would you even start to do something like that?
posted by Naberius at 9:11 AM on October 11


I mean it's got to be easier than building a road in the middle of flipping Tanzania. How the hell would you even start to do something like that?

I honestly can't tell if you're being sarcastic.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:30 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


I thought about posting this awhile ago when I learned about it through my work. It's a great use of technology to solve problems that have existed for many many years. It also has a lot of potential value for scenerios like natural disasters, explosions etc that might destroy roads, bridges, etc.

While I can't comment on whether the same task could theoretically be accomplished more effectively another way, this technology is doing very well at meeting a need that, in reality, was not being met in those other ways. If you want to build a better system, great, do that.

But in the meantime, places with limited road access still need lifesaving medical supplies that can't really be stored in huge amounts ahead of time, like blood products. And the guy bleeding out on the table really doesn't care if you're worried about an imagined risk of government spies or something. He's a little more concerned about getting his transfusion in time.
posted by randomnity at 9:31 AM on October 11 [4 favorites]


I mean it's got to be easier than building a road in the middle of flipping Tanzania. How the hell would you even start to do something like that?

You know, it's possible that the gasoline-powered heavy-infrastructure-requiring personal automobile is not, in fact, the final and most perfect technology for all transport needs, against which every other conceivable approach must be found wanting. I think it would be pretty great if we could handle our shipping needs without blighting the landscape with massive piles of asphalt as far as the eye can see in every direction.
posted by enn at 9:45 AM on October 11 [15 favorites]


The catapault bit is great, with the lack of landing gear I'm guessing the bottom hull is reinforced and it just slides to a halt?

Still waiting on the drone hauling drones sci-fi carrier system though.
posted by Slackermagee at 10:14 AM on October 11


Slackermagee - see "landing without a runway" here. They have a tailhook catch, it looks like.
posted by olinerd at 10:32 AM on October 11 [2 favorites]


Sure it's great now, but in some time: "A drone carrying bags of blood almost collided in mid air with another delivery drone bringing tomato sauce supplies to a local restaurant. Patrons said their marinara tasted funny. Hospital was not available for comment."
posted by Laotic at 11:19 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


I'm not saying it's a bad thing to come up with a way to deliver medical supplies into remote areas. Of course it's not.

But it strikes me as a needlessly over...technologized? and overcomplicated solution to a very, very narrowly defined problem, when there are far easier solutions that also address a lot of other problems that can't be solved by parachuting small payloads onto them.
posted by Naberius at 11:21 AM on October 11


Naberius, 15 minutes vs 4 hours (by road). Or would you consider aviation "needlesly overtechnologized" when the same effect can be achieved by just driving over to New Zealand by car? The drones (model airplanes in boy parlance) could not be simpler.
posted by Laotic at 11:42 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


Naberius, I'm definitely on team Zipline here - a lot of what they're delivering is specifically time-critical stuff; one of the biggest uses of blood supplies is for replacement after post-partum hemorrhage, which is the main killer of women in childbirth, particularly in the remote areas in question. Getting that blood in 15 minutes instead of 4 hours can save lives. As a woman who is 37 weeks pregnant regularly feeling extraordinarily grateful for the dumb luck to live in a developed country with access to advanced medical care, I think this is an awesome application, and I can't see a lot of alternatives for making those deliveries as fast as something like drone technology can.

I mean, there's a reason English has the phrase "as the crow flies" - flying a straight line from point A to point B is the fastest way to get anywhere, particularly if the ground looks particularly mountainous and/or covered in foliage and/or roads are washed out, poorly maintained, or don't exist to begin with. And with just-in-time things like blood products or saline, you're not making a bulk delivery that would make a traditional cargo plane pallet drop or rail delivery (if rail infrastructure exists) a thing that is cost-effective; you need something relatively small and cheap, and drones fit that bill. Presumably, if there were other obvious, less "technologized" options, they'd be in place - they're not. Zipline's filling that gap.

I do think drone-delivery is often over-hyped -- I really don't see a near-term future for drones delivering Amazon packages to my door in suburban Boston, for example, nor do I require aerial delivery of burritos -- but there are a lot of places where going by air rather than land or sea makes sense, and the ability to deliver small things cost-effectively rather than waiting for a bulk delivery is a much desired thing. In those cases, I think drone delivery is exactly the right answer.

I mean, my god, imagine what remote medical facilities in Puerto Rico could be doing right now with this. Sure, you're not air dropping pallets of water and food, but you are maybe getting blood, saline, insulin, or other critical one-off items to the people who need them who literally cannot get them by any other means right now.
posted by olinerd at 12:46 PM on October 11 [8 favorites]


Okay. I was hanging out in the chair next to the guy who fixes the slides and videos in teh greenroom for TED Global in Arusha, Tanzania back in late August and both the Zipline guy and the What Three Words guy came in and sat down to have their vids fixed up during this time. Now, I'd been skeptical (to put it mildly) about both these startups, so I continued fooling around with mltshp and mefi while they went through their stories and photos and slides and whatnot with the tech guru. Here's my takeaway:

I'm still skeptical about using three rando words as an addressing system and I don't care if you're from Cambridge or 7th heaven - particularly in developing countries where language, literacy and whole bunch of things just make this very impractical. I prefer GAL codes, for instance, which are based on your GPS location, as a location discovery method, and have seen them used for delivery rather conveniently by well designed apps and tools.

Zipline, otoh, had managed to capture Kagame's interest - the slides had his photos front and center ;p - and the guy came across rather more humble and sincere that I actually looked up from my screen to hear him out. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

It is highly likely that photographs from Rwanda are being approved for publication at the highest levels, and may not wholly be the startup's own decisions. Some of the slides looked very professional PR stuff that showcases Rwanda - who in turn are in the midst of rebranding themselves in upwardly mobile tourism fashion for high end travelers. This is rambling blather here, as I muse out loud.

As for Tanzania's roads - its going to be hit or miss for while (and this applies to the entire EAC - East African Community, of which both RW and TZ are members) since the infrastructural push right now is focusing on linking trade routes first across the East African Trade Network (EATN) but upcountry may or may not always be connected. I did go by car from Nairobi to Arusha since I wanted to check out the new Namanga border post and the fancy new Arusha-Holili-Taveta-Voi road for myself (from the point of view of impact on local highway side economy bla bla bla not relevant here, i'm a geek and I saw a giraffe!)

Tanzania's history means that the population has been "village-fied" in order to deliver services such as healthcare and education more efficiently and all reports point to this rather controversial portion of their past actually having had some benefits, although transportation networks were disrupted. Otoh much of that is first aid or primary care, and stuff like blood and special medicines aren't going to be as decentralized. On the other other hand, Magufuli is bulldozing his own trail and this introduction of Zipline may or may not fruit the way it has in Rwanda afaik. At least the Rwandan authorities are pleased with Zipline's progress from what I can gather.

As for infrastructure - good gad, its ridiculously much faster to set up a drone delivery system than build tarmac down every hill and up every mountain - Rwanda is a hilly mountainous country which only went from 5% to ~20% electrification in the past 5 years. Back in 2012, when I went out to small village markets we had to stop and let the engine cool down for the pickup just because of the strain - the roads are good enough but cost is an issue:

According to engineers, constructing one kilometer of tarmac road in Rwanda costs more than $1.5 million due to the hilly nature of the country


Given all this, I can see why Rwanda's open to Zipline's prototyping their solution. In the meantime, some lives which might not have been saved, are saved.

Imho, the PR is extremely polished and story/narrative of the startup professional, and maybe that's what makes us all so jumpy?

I've managed to surprise myself by giving this thing a pass and not a snarky fly by, and that makes me wonder how much hype "donkey carriers" and "loons and balloons" in hte media have done to make us cynical, or in my case, send me off on a spluttering rant but that's a derail now
posted by infini at 1:06 PM on October 11 [12 favorites]


and overcomplicated solution to a very, very narrowly defined problem, when there are far easier solutions
Naberius

"build a road" is neither simple nor easy. I think, as andrewpcone notes above, you're getting hung up on the sci-fi feel of the word "drone" (hence your "quantum entanglement" remark). This really isn't a super-high tech complicated proposal; this is the simple and easy solution.
posted by Sangermaine at 3:27 PM on October 11


I just hope this doesn't turn out to be another Theranos.

They're not claiming to use Hogwarts owls to fly the meds so I think you can rest easy.

Roads are expensive and frequently an ecological nightmare and a huge hazard to livestock. They bring crime and development and competition for resources. Rural people might not WANT a high speed paved road anywhere near them or their animals, even if the money were magically available to build them. All of which is besides the point- People are getting sick and dying now and this seems to be a highest and best use of drones to me.
posted by fshgrl at 10:17 PM on October 11 [2 favorites]


I just wanted to talk about the planes themselves, which (from a hobbyist's perspective) I think are well designed.

They're twin pushers, i.e. two props facing backwards "pushing" the plane forward rather than pulling the plane forward like you'd see on a regular plane. The pusher design has some downsides but the big plus here is safety. If the plane crashes, it's not going to go sharp-spinny-end first. It'll still be a heavy plastic thing travelling at speed, but it won't be sharp-spinny-end first.

The pictures show an easy-attach prop guard system on the planes for safe handling while not in flight. That's pretty clever!

Take-off is by some kind of powered bungee launch thing, which is great because you don't need a long runway to build enough airspeed for takeoff. Point it and fire.

Landing is via a metal tether which is folded down and catches on a wire. It is a bit fiddly IMO. If you fly a bit too high, the metal tether is not going to catch on the wire and you'll have to go-around I guess. Big net catches are probably safer, you can increase the safety and reliability margin by having a bigger net, and you won't need the mattress. Just hoist the net up, catch the plane, hoist the plane down. The possible downside is entanglement.

I can't quite tell by eyeball but I think all control surfaces have redundancies built in. The v-tail appears to have not one but two servo-operated horns going into the control surfaces, and I can see extra stuff on the ailerons too.

Delivery is by parachute drop over the target area. Not only is this simple, but it also avoids the land-and-take-off problem at the destination: either you get it to land and take off autonomously, or you have someone trained to do that for you at the destination. If you want to maintain control over 75km you also have to take into account that your radio has to reach that distance, around the curvature of the Earth and any intervening obstacles, to control your plane on the ground for a crucial take-off moment.

I've seen a few drone delivery concepts and if I had to do it I'd do it the way zipline is doing it, for the kind of deliverable product that zipline is using it for. Google's, Amazon's and DHL's prototypes would just take a finger off, or get stolen and vandalised the moment it landed...
posted by theony at 4:43 AM on October 12 [6 favorites]


the PR is extremely polished and story/narrative of the startup professional, and maybe that's what makes us all so jumpy?

Probably. I can see a ton of positives, I just plain don't fucking trust venture capitalists anymore.

the potential surveillance capabilities of these drones make them attractive targets for state and non-state actors.

Uh no. This is a generic concern troll. Paul Kagame, like anyone else with a credit card and an internet connection, can buy vastly more cost effective surveillance systems. The idea that a handful of fixed-wing, zipline launched drones optimized for small package delivery would move the needle on a government's surveillance capacity is ludicrous.


Dismiss all you want, but Kagame isn't just anyone with a credit card and an internet connection: could he do something at this scale without the backing of a shitload of VC $$$?

Anyway, I wasn't actually thinking of Kagame's surveillance capabilities, but those of the US security apparatus, with whom an awful lot of unscrupulous companies have been more than happy to partner.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:58 PM on October 12 [1 favorite]


The region is crawling with them. Must be all that oil recently being discovered in the vicinity.
posted by infini at 1:38 PM on October 12


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