LLamasoft aims to improve third-world medical supply delivery via drones

Ann Arbor-based LLamasoft has partnered with Zipline, a company whose autonomous drones deliver medical supplies to remote locations, to optimize drone usage in public health supply chain applications.


Zipline, which is based in Half Moon Bay, Calif., has already been using drones to deliver medical supplies in Rwanda and is now expanding its services into Tanzania. LLamasoft's Global Impact Team has worked with the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and Medical Stores Department on supply chain projects to optimize the ministry's transportation routes for nearly four years.


"We've been helping the ministries of health answer questions like how many warehouses they need, where they need to put them, [and] how to ensure medicines are in stock at health facilities," says Sid Rupani, regional director for LLamasoft IMEA. "We examine transportation routes, the frequencies of deliveries, the capacities of the trucks, and all these other quantitative questions about how to set up the supply chain."


Rupani says he began talking to Zipline founders a couple years ago. He thought the time for a partnership was ripe because Zipline already had supply-chain expertise, and because drone technology was becoming more "mature."


"It made sense to model how their technology would fit in with supply chain management and improve the availability of medicines, the speed with which those medicines would be provided, and the impact on cost," Rupani says.


Zipline and LLamasoft collaborated for over a year, modeling existing operations in Rwanda so they could make the case for expanding their services into Tanzania in terms of benefits and cost.


Rupani says nobody is making the case that drones should replace existing transportation methods completely, now or in the future.


"So the question becomes what niches do they fit into, and where do they give a compelling advantage?" Rupani says.


In Rwanda, the partners found that delivering blood by drone made more sense than driving to the nearest blood bank. Instead of using three or four hours of an employee's time as well as fuel costs for a round-trip ride, a drone could deliver a few pints of blood in 20-30 minutes.


Rupani says delivery of vaccines is likely to be another useful application. Instead of sending one truck around each month to deliver vaccines to various health clinics, which may have power outages that spoil temperature-sensitive vaccines, a drone can deliver smaller amounts more frequently.


"It's a nice trade-off, because the cost worked out to be about neutral, but with better performance" and less waste, Rupani says.


Rupani says he and others at LLamasoft are working on a white paper with another partner with the aim of determining what niches in the supply chain can best be supplied by drones.


"We're looking not just at Zipline's technology but all available drone options currently on the market," Rupani says. "We'll be looking at all these different parameters and examining in which cases it would make sense to deliver by drones."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


Photos courtesy of LLamasoft.

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