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Drones Helping the Sick in Costa Rica
Drones delivering medicine could be a solution for people living in the remote areas of Costa Rica. The indigenous people in these areas are far away from medical facilities and pharmacies. Trekking back and forth from their homes to cities to get medical supplies is a very difficult and time-consuming process. Therefore, many do not get the medicine they need.

As an initiative of Costa Rica’s Social Security System (CAJA), drones will deliver medication to eight indigenous communities in the province of Limón. To launch the program, CAJA has teamed up with the company Zipline.

Zipline, with the tagline, “No Roads, No Problems!” manufactures small robot airplanes called “Zips,” which can carry vaccines, medicine and blood to wherever they are needed. The startup estimates that “two billion people lack adequate access to essential medical products, often due to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure.” Zipline offers a simple way to deliver prescriptions to people living in rural regions especially in underdeveloped countries. Zipline is already in use in Rwanda, delivering blood and plasma to hospitals in rural areas. These drones make 50 to 150 deliveries per day.

The Zipline method is easy. After a doctor inputs the prescription into CAJA’s Digital Health Records system, a pharmacist at a local clinic prepares the medication, secures it in a container and places it inside the drone. Now, the Zip can begin its flight to the patient’s home. Once the medicine has been safely parachuted to the destination, the doctor is alerted in order to keep track of who has received medication.

The drones delivering medicine only weigh about 22 pounds. They are equipped with a GPS for location accuracy. Clinical workers can also ensure that the drones are following the correct route. The drones usually travel 62 miles per hour, but can go faster if needed. At such a rate, medication reaches its destination in approximately 45 minutes. As compared to the usual three-day process of getting medication to patients, the drones are cutting the time down dramatically.

In 2017, Zips will deliver approximately 13,200 packages a month, which will cost the Costa Rican government $26,000. This is much cheaper and more effective than alternatives tried in the past, including bicycles, motorcycles and boats. Land transportation methods have had issues because remote areas rarely have paved roads.

If drones delivering medicine are successful in Limón, the program, or one like it, may expand to other communities in need and possibly other countries that face similar issues.

Karla Umanzor

Photo: Flickr

Drones for Healthcare
The Rwandan government’s recent initiative to use drones for health care, delivering critical blood parcels on parachutes outside remote health centers, is a huge step forward in the use of this pioneering technology in crisis-hit areas.

As part of the program, which was kicked off last week, medical workers in health centers across the western parts of the country where the terrain makes road trips long and complicated, send requests for life-saving blood using text messages.

Using commercial drones, these packets containing the required blood are then delivered to 21 transfusing facilities in about 30 minutes, shaving off hours it would have taken using the traditional road routes. This is one more successful effort by the government to decrease the rate of maternal mortality, which stands today at 320 deaths per 100,000 live births. One of the main causes of maternal mortality is the loss of blood during and following childbirth.

While the Rwandan government is the primary driver of this program, the drones and delivery service are built and being operated by Zipline, a California-based robotics company. Rwanda’s successful experiment can be extended to many other areas of critical-care as well as outside that country.

While the current drone delivery service is focusing on blood deliveries, an international partnership between logistics giant UPS, the Vaccine Alliance, Gavi (a public-private group started by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) and Zipline are working on doing the same with vaccines.

It is easy to see how this breakthrough service can be extended to other parts of the developing world where access to lifesaving and critical health products suffers from what is termed the “last-mile problem,” which is the failure to extend medicines to remote locations which suffer from poor roads and transportation infrastructure. The set of drones, called Zips, being used in Rwanda can fly up to 150 kilometers, which should be enough in most cases to address the problem of reaching remote areas rapidly in emergencies.

Considering the situation in battle-scarred areas like Syria or Iraq, where both the terrain and the constant fighting turn civilian areas into no-fly zones, drones may well be the only solution to supply medicines, food and water to under-siege populations. Initial efforts to do that have already begun and are showing results.

Since last year, Uplift Aeronautics and the Syria Airlift Project have been flying prototype drones over the border from neighboring country on missions chosen by aid partners such as People Demand Change. Given their small size, each of these drones can carry only a few pounds of supplies which ensure they can’t be tracked by radars.

While this initiative has since been suspended for various reasons, the Rwandan government’s example shows that using drones for health care could eventually become a stable solution; providing life-saving drugs and equipment to those parts of the world where nature and man are cut off from the rest of the world is critical.

Mallika Khanna

Photo: Flickr