Zipline Expands Medical Drone-Delivery Service to Ghana

With today’s official launch in Ghana, Zipline has vastly expanded the largest drone-delivery network in the world

2 min read
Zipline claims that its Ghana operation will be 'the largest drone delivery network of any kind in history.'
Zipline claims that its Ghana operation will be “the largest drone delivery network of any kind in history.”
Photo: Zipline

Today, Zipline is officially opening the first of four distribution centers in Ghana, inaugurating a drone-delivery network that will eventually serve 2,000 hospitals and clinics covering 12 million people. We’re very familiar with Zipline’s dropping-packages-of-blood-from-the-sky operations in Rwanda, but Ghana will be on a much larger scale, with more drones flying more frequently delivering more items.

Here’s what Zipline says in a press release about the new operation:

The revolutionary new service will use drones to make on-demand, emergency deliveries of 148 different vaccines, blood products, and life-saving medications. The service will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from 4 distribution centers—each equipped with 30 drones—and deliver to 2,000 health facilities serving 12 million people across the country. Together, all four distribution centers will make up to 600 on-demand delivery flights a day on behalf of the Government of Ghana. Each Zipline distribution center has the capacity to make up to 500 flights per day.

Zipline Ghana map Zipline says its drones will make national-scale, on-demand deliveries of 12 routine and emergency vaccines as well as 148 blood products and critical medicines. Image: Zipline

Zipline’s contract with the government of Ghana is worth US $12.5 million, but there has been significant criticism over the deal from the minority party in the Ghanaian government (backed by the Ghana Medical Association) arguing that funding was urgently needed for basic services rather than for medical drone delivery. The contract was approved, though, and Zipline will be scaling up its operations to meet demand.

While it’s certainly useful that Zipline will have the capability of delivering many different medicines, we should point out that what makes its delivery service cost effective is primarily blood and blood products. Fundamentally, Zipline’s drones are more expensive than making routine deliveries by road, but they’re much faster, which is worth paying for when you’re delivering something perishable that’s needed immediately. Zipline often highlights the value of its services with the example of providing blood for patients who are hemorrhaging, and we’ve heard that antivenin delivery is also a critical, time-sensitive product that drone delivery could make available when needed. It’s less clear whether using drones to deliver routine vaccines or shelf-stable medicines is actually better than using more established means of transport, but we’ll see how it works out in Ghana. The Zipline release continues, saying,

Zipline is hard at work catching up to demand to expand drone delivery services to developed and developing countries across Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Americas throughout 2019, including the United States. Zipline is working with the U.S. state of North Carolina to launch its medical drone delivery as a part of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) UAS Integration Pilot Program (UASIPP) in Q2 of 2019.

We knew about the North Carolina plans, but Asia is a new one, and the fact that Zipline bothers to differentiate between “south” and “southeast” suggests that there are at least two projects that the company is at least considering. We’re looking forward to covering those projects in person, just as soon as they invite us out.

[ Zipline ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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