With all that surrounds the political landscape regarding national health care, there remains an untold story. That of rural America. While politicians work to find solutions to reduce health care costs and provide affordable coverage for all, 20-25% of America’s population reside in what would be defined as “rural” areas and 82% of them are classified as “medically underserved areas.” These areas tend to have a higher percent of low-income families and aged resident as well, making them more vulnerable to health issues. A new and rather unique opportunity exists to help people in the U.S. and around the world who live in rural areas.

New Technology

Organizations are looking to new technology to help address some of this issues with rural care, not only in the U.S. but around the globe. A California-based company named Zipline has developed a system that uses drones, or unmanned flying vehicles, to deliver life-saving blood products to rural areas. Zipline’s long-term mission is to build instant delivery for the planet, allowing medicines and other products to be delivered on-demand and at low cost without using a drop of gasoline. Zipline states that over 2 billion people lack access to basic healthcare, including blood and vaccines, in part due to living in areas that are hard to reach due to the terrain. Other factors to consider could be the distance from the nearest health care facility and travel costs, which in many third-world countries many people cannot afford to travel long distances.

Does This Really Work?

Recently, a drone flew 160 miles over the hot Arizona Desert carrying chilled-human blood. This was a record-breaking trip for the transportation of a biological sample by a remotely operated vehicle. But is it as safe and effective as the alternative, more conventional methods? This is what scientists are looking into. Some studies showed that drone travel left blood products undamaged, but they were short flights and didn’t accurately reflect that actual distances the drones will need to fly. Insert pathology professor Timothy Amukele. Professor Amukele works at John Hopkins and collected blood samples from 21 adults. Half of the samples flew over the Arizona desert for three hours while the other samples sat in an air-conditioned van for comparison. Attached to the drone was a custom-built cooler that helped keep the blood at 75 degrees Fahrenheit, 15 degrees cooler than the outside temperature.

After the flight, both samples (car versus drone) were compared and they were essentially the same with exception to glucose and potassium. Researchers thought that this was likely caused by the blood samples in the van being 4 degrees warmer, skewing the results.

Practically speaking there are many things that need to be worked out to streamline this product into something that could be used on a regular basis. Some issues that need to be work out are safe drop zones, the concern for dropping hazardous materials, and potential injury from drones. In spite of many uncertainties, countries like Rwanda and Tanzania are already working with Zipline to help deliver blood using drones.

World’s Largest Drone Delivery System

On August 24th, the Tanzanian government announced it will partner with Zipline to launch the world’s largest drone delivery service to provide emergency on-demand access to critical, life-saving medicines. Beginning in 2018, the Tanzanian government will be using drones to deliver up to 2,000 deliveries for life-saving deliveries a day to over 1,000 health facilities. This would grant vital access to nearly 10 million people. In 2016, Rwanda launched its own drone delivery system, but the one being launched in Tanzania is expected to be much larger.

Four distribution centers will each have 30 drones available to make up to 500 on-demand deliveries a day starting with a simple text message. From the initial text, deliveries arrive within 30 minutes (on average).

Could Drone Services Be Used In The U.S.?

Zipline’s strategic partnership with Rwanda and Tanzania are expected to save thousands of lives. It is unknown as to if and how the U.S. could utilize these services. Having a well-developed infrastructure (compared to third world countries) makes the need for drones less but that is not to say that they couldn’t be utilized in remote parts of the country or parts that are difficult to reach. Plus, it could speed up the delivery of time-sensitive products from facility to facility and be more cost friendly as it doesn’t require a pilot or gas. African nations are investing into drone services while the rest of the world watches to see if drones can be an effective tool to help promote access to life-saving services.