BOSTON – While Amazon and other retailers are experimenting with drones to deliver toasters and toilet seats to your doorstep, drone-delivered platelets and fresh frozen plasma may be coming soon to a hospital near you, experts said at AABB 2018, the annual meeting of the group formerly known as the American Association of Blood Banks.
Using a system of completely autonomous delivery drones launched from a central location, U.S.-baseddelivers blood products to treat postpartum hemorrhage, trauma, malaria, and other life-threatening conditions to patients in rural Rwanda, according to company spokesman Chris Kenney.
“In less than 2 years in Rwanda, we’ve made almost 10,000 deliveries – that’s almost 20,000 units of blood,” he said.
One-third of all deliveries are needed for urgent, life-saving interventions, he said.
The system, which delivers 30% of all blood products used in Rwanda outside the capital Kigali, has resulted in 100% availability of blood products when needed, a 98% reduction in waste (i.e., when unused blood products are discarded because of age), and a 175% increase in the use of platelets and fresh frozen plasma, Mr. Kenney said.
Setting up an airborne delivery network in the largely unregulated and uncrowded Rwandan airspace was a relatively simple process, however, compared with the myriad challenges of establishing a similar system for deliveries to urban medical centers in Boston, Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles, said Paul Eastvold, MD, chief medical officer at, a nonprofit network of community blood banks headquartered in Spokane, Wash.
Dr. Eastvold, who is also a private pilot, described the regulatory hurdles that will need to be surmounted before blood-delivery drones are as common a sight as traffic helicopters are currently. He added, however, “I can guarantee you that in the future this is going to be an applicable technology to our industry in one way, shape, or another.”
Fast and cheap
Speed and cost are two of the most compelling arguments for blood banks to use drones. Mr. Kenney described the case of a 24-year-old Rwandan woman who had uncontrolled bleeding from complications following a cesarean section. The clinicians treating her opted to give her an immediate red blood cell transfusion, but she continued to bleed, and the hospital ran out of red blood cells in about 15 minutes.
They placed an order for more blood products – ordering can be done by text message or via WhatsApp, a free, cross-platform messaging and voiceover IP calling service – and over the course of 90 minutes Zipline was able to deliver, using multiple drone launches, 7 units of red blood cells, 4 units of plasma, and 2 units of platelets, all of which were transfused into the patient and allowed her condition to stabilize.
Deliveries that would take a minimum of 3 hours by road can be accomplished in about 15-25 minutes by air, Mr. Kenney said.
The drones – more formally known as “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs) – fly a loop starting at the distribution center, find their target, descend to a height of about 10 meters and drop the package, which has a parachute attached. Packages can be delivered within a drop zone the size of two parking spaces, even in gale-force winds, Mr. Kenney said.
“The whole process is 100% autonomous. The aircraft knows where it’s going, it knows what conditions [are], it knows what its payload characteristics are and flies to the delivery point and drops its package,” he explained.
As drones return to the distribution center, they are snared from the air with a wire that catches a small tail hook on the fuselage.
Airborne deliveries are also significantly cheaper than ground-based services for local delivery, Dr. Eastvold noted. He cited a study showing that the cost of ground shipping from a local warehouse by carriers such as UPS or FedEx could be $6 or more, drones could be as cheap as 5 cents per mile with delivery within about 30 minutes, he said.