Ghana is the first nation in the world to use drone technology to test for COVID-19, paving the way for drone technology to play a new role in the fight against COVID-19.
Ghana has one of the highest testing rates in Africa, despite having thousands of far-flung rural clinics, and only two places in the entire country where the swabs can be analyzed. Until last week, all the tests had to be transported to the laboratories by road, a journey that can take up to six hours. Some remote clinics, loath to dispatch an ambulance for just one test, would wait a few days in order to collect enough samples to make the trip worthwhile, prolonging patients’ anxiety and delaying the contact tracing protocols necessary to stop the virus’s spread. Now, the whole round-trip journey takes under 30 minutes.
Now, Zipline, an American health care logistics company, is flying samples from difficult-to-reach rural areas into the capital with its fleet of red and white drones. Once collected, either in local clinics or by health workers out in the field, the test swabs are packaged with ice in specially designed bio-safe containers, fitted with a parachute, and placed into the bellies of the drones. The zips, as they are called, won’t actually land at the laboratories. Instead they swoop down to release their payloads at designated drop zones, where attendants, alerted to the pending arrival via SMS, are waiting to collect them. The whole round-trip journey, which could take up most of a day by car, takes under 30 minutes.
Zipline’s fleet in Ghana is equipped to transport up to 15,000 tests a day, in 300 flights, from their two collection points. The company has two other drone ports that could be brought online as well. Further down the line it could start delivering routine medications as well, keeping vulnerable patients with chronic conditions away from hospitals where they risk exposure to the virus.