Zipline retires the ‘Robin’ drone generation

You could say it has been another normal week in Ziplineland, the American medical drone logistics company that has found a home in Africa.

On one hand, the company celebrated the 17,000th safely delivered package of cancer medicine in Rwanda, for patients whose regular sojourns to get treatment at one major hospital had been hamstrung by COVID-19 restrictions in the country; retired a legendary prototype drone generation; before announcing progress with the erection of a massive distribution centre taking shape in Arkansas, which is being built in association with retail giant Walmart.

But first, the cancer drug deliveries.

Zipline loves Rwanda. It was the first country that took a leap of faith with the company when it was still looking for somebody to believe in their new unmanned solution for unmanned aerial delivery. It is fair to say their time in the country has been more than fruitful, as it has spawned more opportunities in Ghana, Ethiopia and Nigeria, which the company gratefully grabbed with both hands.

It was little wonder then, that when the Butaro Centre of Excellence – the main referral centre for cancer patients in Burera District in Rwanda’s Northern Province – started missing its patients who usually flocked to the place for their steady supply of medical necessities to help ease their pain, there was concern among stakeholders.

“In early 2020, COVID-19 lockdown posed a major health threat to outpatients at the Butaro Cancer Center of Excellence, Rwanda’s main referral centre for cancer care, managed by Partners In Health and the government of Rwanda,” Zipline said. “While the nation’s distributed network of specialised health facilities remained open, access was affected by restrictions on movement, suspension of public transport, and fear of COVID-19 infection. Patients had to travel eight to twelve-hour round trip to seek treatment, and as COVID-19 infection rates rose, health professionals feared lengthy travel could increase patient exposure or lead to missed or delayed treatment. PIH had to rethink its approach to delivering time-sensitive medicines.”

And this was where Zipline came in. Ever heard the phrase, when all you have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail? Well, Zipline have drones; and these drones are the hammer to most logistical constraints, which included the PIH’s problem.

Suffice to say the Zips were the right fit for this kind of conundrum.

“PIH contacted Zipline to distribute cancer medications to local district hospitals closest to patients. The non-profit would transport the cancer medications via road to Zipline’s two Rwandan distribution centres (at Muhanga in the Southern Province and Kayonza in the Eastern Province), capable of delivering supplies anywhere in the country.

“Upon request, Zipline delivered the medications using drones to local district hospitals where PIH-trained local health workers administered specialty care to patients. The operation began less than three days after PIH’s initial contact with Zipline.

After 6million flight, Robin has hung her wings…

“On demand delivery of cancer drugs to local district hospitals reduced average patient travel time from eight hours to just one – an 85 percent reduction in travel time that increased access to care, reduced risk of exposure, and increased patient adherence.

“By March 2021, a year after the partnership with Partners in Health, Zipline had delivered over 17,000 tablets of eight cancer products to patients across 16 districts. This collaboration ensured that patients continued to have access to essential medicines and car.”

Some of the deliveries were made by the Robin Zip, Zipline’s prototype generation of drone that has served the company so well for the past three years and whose run came to an end last week, as the company announced.

“Continuous improvement has been the cornerstone of Zipline’s pursuit of a logistics system that serves all people equally,” the company announced. “Today, we officially retired “Robin”, a generation of Zip that has been our workhorse for the past 3 years.

“Robin flew 61,000+ flights, logged 57,000+ hours in the air, and 6,130,275 kilometres travelled. That’s nearly fourteen trips around the circumference of Jupiter! Most importantly, Robin saved thousands of lives and helped transform how healthcare is delivered.

“Onward and thank you, Robin, and all the Zipliners who made you possible!”

Robin made Zipline famous. She had a flight range of 80 kilometres, while her successor, the Sparrow, can fly for up to 120 kilometres at speeds of 100km/hour.

Robin’s official last working day was May 28.

The Sparrow will be taking over from where Robin left, and she certainly will be the flagship drone to be used at the new delivery facility Zipline are building in partnership with the American retail conglomerate, Walmart in Arkansas.

The delivery hub, which is set to serve the area around the Pea Ridge store stretching about 80 kilometres, is still months out from completion yet, but the partners cannot wait to see what the project will bring to customers in the sphere of influence.

“As we mark the retirement of our Robin zip, here’s a taste of what the future of instant delivery looks like. Zipline infrastructure nearly complete at the Walmart store in Pea Ridge, Arkansas. It will be some months before deliveries begin from this location, but we can’t wait to see what this type of service unlocks for customers, retailers and health access.”

In an announcement about the project last September, Walmart SVP of Consumer Product, Tom Ward, described the project as environmentally friendly.

“Zipline will operate from a Walmart store and can service a 50-mile (about 80 kilometres) radius, which is about the size of the state of Connecticut. And, not only does their launch and release system allow for quick on-demand delivery in under an hour, but it also eliminates carbon emissions, which lines up perfectly with our sustainability goals.”

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