Fueling Innovation Kim Lachance Shandrow  | October 4, 2018

How UPS and Zipline are Using Drones to Save Lives in Remote Rwandan Clinics

When a mother gives birth in rural Rwanda and suffers from post-partum hemorrhaging, her life depends on receiving a blood transfusion right away. Every second counts.

That’s why UPS is soaring to the rescue in life-threatening emergencies like these in the underserved African country, with a big lift from a San Francisco drone delivery startup called Zipline.

The two American companies are working together to fly life-saving blood, vaccines, plasma deliveries and other medical supplies to underserved hospitals in the remote western part of Rwanda in a bold new way — by autonomous drone. Additionally supported by Bill Gates-backed vaccine fund Gavi, the pioneering initiative officially kicked off on Oct. 14, 2016. And, to date, the philanthropic program has completed more than 1,400 successful deliveries.

The UPS Foundation awarded an $800,000 grant to help fund the launch of the initiative, the first of its kind in the world. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation (USCCF) recently recognized UPS for its role in the delivery drone program, and for its many inspiring efforts to serve as a powerful force for good in Rwanda and beyond. The Atlanta-based shipping leader won the Best Health and Wellness award at the USCCF’s 18th annual Corporate Citizenship Awards. The awards honor purpose-driven businesses dedicated to addressing the world’s greatest needs through innovation, education, expertise, capital and collaboration.

“Public-private partnerships are the key to solving many of the world’s challenges, with each partner contributing its unique expertise,” said Eduardo Martinez, president of The UPS Foundation and chief diversity and inclusion officer at UPS. “UPS is always exploring innovative ways to enhance humanitarian logistics to help save lives, and we’re proud to partner with Gavi and Zipline as we explore ways to extend the Rwandan government’s innovations at a global scale.”

Due to poor and often dangerous road conditions, hospital workers in Rwanda used to spend many long, grueling hours attempting to pick up blood from regional blood donation distribution centers by truck. Sometimes they made it in time. Other times not at all.

Now, thanks to the UPS-supported Zipline drone delivery program, blood is delivered directly to the patients whose lives depend on it in less than 30 minutes, and sometimes even faster. Today, drones in the area can make hundreds of blood and other medical supply deliveries per day to any hospital or medical clinic within range, boosting patient health and saving more lives.

“The inability to deliver life-saving medicines to the people who need them the most causes millions of preventable deaths each year,” said Zipline co-founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo. “The work of this partnership will help solve that problem once and for all. With the expertise and vision of UPS, Gavi and Zipline, instant drone delivery will allow us to save thousands of lives in a way that was never before possible.”

Using a special smartphone app, doctors and medical staff simply text their blood orders to Zipline. Soon, they receive an “ETA” text notifying them when their carefully packed — and parachute-equipped —box of blood supplies is about to be dropped by drone.

Rwandan mother Claudine Ndayishime (pictured above) credits the groundbreaking drone delivery program with saving her life.

She suffered a serious complication during her C-section. The hospital where she delivered her baby didn’t have her blood type on hand, and she fell into a coma. Thanks to a life-giving supply of drone-delivered donor blood that arrived just in time, the new mom survived.

“… I was able to regain consciousness,” she said. “They delivered the blood in a few minutes.”