Drones Lift Hopes for Humanitarian Logistics

- Heather Gawronski-Salerno

In May, the UPS Foundation announced it would grant $800,000 to fund a partnership between Rwanda’s Ministry of Health, drone manufacturer Zipline, and the vaccine alliance Gavi to begin a one-year program whose goal is to deliver blood supplies across Rwanda.

"Our mission is to deliver critical medical products to hospitals and health centers that are basically unreachable with standard modes of transportation,” said Keller Rinaudo, Zipline co-founder and CEO. “Patients frequently die because of lack of access to a basic medical product that exists in a central warehouse 75 kilometres away but can't make it out that final mile to the person who needs it."

Rutted roads, weather, civil unrest, natural disasters: there are various reasons medical supplies don’t get where they need to be in time. This initiative could potentially bypass such obstacles by readying fifteen drones capable of reaching speeds as high as 87 miles per hour, able to deliver medical supplies to locations in under 30 minutes.

Professor Karen Smilowitz leads the humanitarian logistics research team in Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences at Northwestern University. The team explores such challenges as vehicle routing in relief efforts, working to provide relief agencies with the analytical framework they need to make effective distribution decisions.

“The state of transportation networks immediately after a disaster can be highly uncertain, and routing relief and damage assessment vehicles given this uncertainty is challenging,” said Smilowitz. “Drones could provide a viable alternative.”

The drone project will initially focus on delivering blood, but the intent is to expand deliveries to vaccines and treatments for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and other illnesses.