One of the ongoing struggles in some parts of the Third World is supplying everybody with what they need, something that can become even more difficult in the wake of outbreaks and social unrest. In places like Rwanda, being unable to secure basic medical supplies can be quite literally the difference between life and death. So a new plan by UPS and a company called Zipline is attempting to close these sometimes fatal gaps.
Just In Time
We don’t think about it that often, but the First World is the beneficiary of a brilliantly designed and tested supply chain. We can get anything, from donuts to the insulin we need to inject if we don’t stop eating donuts, packed, shipped, and at our door, across potentially thousands of miles, in the space of a day. We gather products from around the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ship. Access to the right medical care is little more than a matter of money.
But in countries without that infrastructure, even the essentials can be difficult or outright impossible to get across a river, let alone across a country. That’s especially true in places like Rwanda. Although the country has driven down the mortality rate of children younger than 5 years old by two thirds since 1990, it’s still a country with many remote areas that are difficult at best to access by truck and too far away to constantly helicopter in small loads of supplies. This is where the drones come in.
Zipline’s drones are essentially small airplanes built for long-range flight, so that drones can be launched from a single base. When a medical practitioner in one of 20 clinics needs blood, vaccines, or other medical supplies, they simply send a text message and the drone is fired from home base. Instead of dealing with rough terrain, it soars over it, and drops supplies with a small parachute. The supplies themselves land in an area the size of a few parking spaces, and the drone returns to base for refueling and the next supply run.
Rwanda in particular needs this kind of infrastructure. Located in the African Great Lakes region, it’s filled with mountains and rough terrain to the east and savannah to the west, and despite its largely rural population, is still one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Simply put, there are a lot of people to treat, and it’s difficult to get to them.
Long-Term Solutions Still Needed
Zipline is, ultimately, only a short-term solution. If somebody in the hills needs to be taken to a hospital, for example, there’s simply nothing the drone team can do. So, long-term, Third World countries will still need more roads and more ways to get around, for medical reasons and also economic ones. But building roads is difficult and time-consuming, and maintaining them even more so. Until we can work out a better way to do that, and keep those roads always open, Zipline will ensure that pavement isn’t the only thing between life and death.