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

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

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 mapZipline 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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