Apr 20, 2020 - Health

A coronavirus first: Zipline drones deliver test samples in Africa

Image of a Zipline drone delivering a package of medical supplies in Ghana

Zipline is using drones to deliver COVID-19 test samples from rural areas to urban hospitals. Photo: Zipline

Zipline, a Silicon Valley-based drone delivery service, is helping government officials in the African country of Ghana monitor the spread of the coronavirus by delivering test samples collected in rural areas to medical laboratories in two major cities.

Why it matters: It's the first time that autonomous drones have been used to make regular long-range deliveries into densely populated urban areas, and it's the first time that drones have been used to deliver COVID-19 test samples.

How it works: The service began April 17, when 51 COVID-19 test samples collected from patients at rural health facilities were transported to Zipline's distribution center in Omenako, Ghana.

  • The 51 samples were packed according to World Health Organization guidelines inside the belly of four Zipline drones, which flew more than 70 miles round trip to Accra, the capital city, for testing and analysis.
  • The packages were dropped via parachute to waiting medical personnel at the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research.
  • Zipline is also delivering samples from another distribution center in Ghana to Kumasi, the country's second-largest city.

Drone delivery allows medical officials to sharply reduce the amount of time it takes to obtain test samples from hard-to-reach rural areas.

  • Instead of waiting several days for a batch of samples to be transported by truck, a single test from a rural area can be delivered for analysis in less than an hour.
  • Zipline is also delivering masks and other personal protective gear, as well as medicine and blood, to medical facilities in Ghana and Rwanda during the coronavirus outbreak.
  • "Zipline is dedicated to helping Ghana in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic," said CEO Keller Rinaudo in a statement. "Using contactless drone delivery to transport COVID-19 test samples will allow the government to respond to the pandemic and help save lives more quickly."

What to watch: Zipline, which had planned a U.S. launch this fall, says it is in talks with the Federal Aviation Administration to begin "emergency humanitarian operations" here as soon as possible.

  • In the U.S., the company said it would focus on distributing scarce resources like test kits and personal protective equipment like masks and gloves across health systems more efficiently and effectively.
  • The company has been working since 2018 with the U.S. Department of Defense — both in the U.S. and Australia — to demonstrate how its technology could help provide critical care in conflict, humanitarian and disaster relief scenarios.
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