UPS Foundation, Zipline, Gavi Partner to Drone-Drop Medical Supplies in Rwanda

Zipline UPS Partner

This post originally appeared on http://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/brand_innovation/alexandra_smith/ups_foundation_zipline_gavi_partner_drone-drop_medic.

[Editor’s Note: The partnership is a one-year initiative, with the possibility of being expanded.]

Zipline drones such as this one will deliver medical supplies in Rwanda. Drones are launched from a slingshot-like device that exerts 10 g’s of force at takeoff. | Image provided by author.

The UPS Foundation has partnered with drone manufacturer Zipline and leading vaccine alliance Gavi., to deliver blood, medicines, and vaccines to clinics across Rwanda via a fleet of Zipline drones. Drones can provide a faster, more reliable method of medicine delivery in areas where roads are often impassable, or where products cannot be kept for long without spoiling. The venture is planned as a one-year initiative, with hopes to expand in the future.

A drone hub on display in Half Moon Bay.

A drone hub on display in Half Moon Bay. Click to enlarge. | Image provided by author.

Zipline co-founder Keenan Wyrobek opens model blood packets after a successful delivery in Half Moon Bay last Thursday.

Zipline co-founder Keenan Wyrobek opens model blood packets after a successful delivery in Half Moon Bay last Thursday. Click to enlarge. | Image provided by author.

Zipline’s drones will be based in several launch bases known as hubs, which can house up to 15 drones at a time. The tiny aircraft are able to carry a maximum of 1.5 kilograms of materials, and are estimated to make deliveries in an average of 30 minutes. Each drone requires a team of four people to launch, can travel a maximum distance of 75 kilometers from hub to drop site, and is capable of making up to 150 deliveries a day.

UPS Involvement

The UPS Foundation leads UPS’s global philanthropy and citizenship efforts, focusing on four areas that reflect both UPS values and expertise: Diversity and Inclusion, Environmental SustainabilityCommunity Safety, and Volunteerism. Charitable giving from the Foundation totaled $54.7m in 2015.

In alignment with the focus area of Community Safety, the UPS Foundation has awarded an $800,000 grant to support the initial launch of this initiative in Rwanda; the Foundation will also be included as an advisory member of the collaborative.

“Sixty to eighty percent of the cost in humanitarian efforts goes into the supply chain,” explained Eduardo Martinez, President of the UPS Foundation and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at UPS. “The handling of the equipment and the handling of the product is somewhere that UPS can add value, because that is what we do, essentially, every day.”

Martinez also noted that partnerships with governments in developing countries can be seen as long-term investments for UPS, as these countries represent the markets of tomorrow.

At Thursday’s event, Martinez emphasized the importance of collaboration and public-private partnership when tackling such large-scale problems as relief and resilience efforts.

“The challenges can be so overwhelming that you really have to have government, civil society, the United Nations, and the private sector involved,” Martinez told Sustainable Brands. “There is so much to do in the world; by bringing together everybody chipping in, we get at (these problems) a lot better.”

Martinez pointed out that UPS often collaborates with competitors in order to help achieve its humanitarian goals.

“We’ve been working for the last ten years with the Logistics Emergency Team, which is a collaboration among competitors, (including) Maersk Line,” he said. “We work with the World Food Program – the three companies coordinate, and determine whoever has assets and people on the ground.

“Whenever we can innovate and help improve, enhance, and save lives, the UPS Foundation is going to try to do that,” he added.

Looking Forward

Aside from the humanitarian impacts, this venture will serve as an exploration of the potential of drone initiatives. As such, the partners acknowledge it is a work in progress. Concerns surrounding the response of local communities to drone activity must be acknowledged, and Zipline has worked with design and innovation firm IDEO to consider community response and engagement with the project.

“One of the greatest challenges in global public health is encouraging some of these countries to truly take ownership of innovation and improving supply chains in their own countries,” said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo. “What the Rwandan government is doing right now in this project is incredibly innovative and exciting, because they are taking ownership.”

Zipline is also mindful of sustainability issues, and is aiming to design its drones to be as long-lasting as possible.

“Our biggest focus is on reusability,” said Keenan Wyrobek, Zipline’s founder and Head of Product and Engineering. “There’s very little of the drone that can’t be replaced, so we can keep using major pieces of it, and then everything that we can’t (reuse) we focus on recyclability.”

Zipline, Gavi and UPS are aiming to expand the range of drones to cover the entirety of Rwanda, and believe that the Rwandan government could serve as a catalyst for other countries in the area facing similar problems.

The collaboration has even more ambitious goals for the future of drone use around the world, wherever communities may need this type of solution.

“Understanding these types of metrics – the efficiency, how many lives are saved, how many doses are used – is going to be part of the lessons learned that will have global relevance,” said Gavi CEO Dr. Seth Berkley.

While many questions remain regarding the feasibility, impact, and success rate of healthcare-related drone operations, it is good to see partnerships of this type getting off the ground.


Alex is an Intern with Member Engagement and Fulfillment at Sustainable Brands. She recently received her MS from Royal Holloway, University of London in Applied Social Psychology, where she focused on environmental decision-making. Before coming to Sustainable Brands, Alex worked… [Read more about Alexandra Smith]

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