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Medical delivery drones cleared for takeoff in Ghana

Twelve million people in Ghana are set to benefit from the launch of the world’s largest drone medical delivery service.

Up to 600 drone flights will be made each day, delivering vaccines, blood supplies and life-saving medicines to 2,000 health centres in remote areas around the country.

The service will operate out of four hubs, each hosting 30 drones, designed by Zipline, a California-based robotics company.

Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, who officially inaugurated the new drone network at a ceremony in Omenako, said the service “represents a major step towards giving everyone in this country universal access to life-saving medicine”.

“No one in Ghana should die because they can’t access the medicine they need in an emergency,” said Akufo-Addo.

The new drone service was initially met with concern. Critics argued that in a country where, according to the BBC, 55 ambulances serve a population of 29 million people, money should instead be spent on improving current health facilities, including clinics and ambulances.

The Ghana Medical Association called for the drone project to be suspended and tested on a trial basis first, claiming it would not help to tackle health service problems.

But Ghana’s government granted Zipline $12m (£9.5 million) to run the project for four years after the initiative was approved in parliament by 102 votes to 58.

Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the vaccine alliance, which is supporting Zipline’s work, said: “The ability of the government to supplement routine immunisation on demand will allow us to make sure that there will always be enough life-saving vaccines for every child in Ghana.”

Zipline first introduced their drones in Rwanda in 2016, where they have since made 13,000 deliveries. One-third of these were to patients in a critical condition, when urgent access to supplies was a matter of life and death.

A health centre can request supplies via text message, with packaging and delivery taking an average of 30 minutes, according to Zipline.

Each drone can carry a load of 1.8kg, which it releases with a parachute once it descends to a safe height.

The company’s engineers include aerospace veterans from SpaceX and Nasa.

Following the opening of a second Rwanda distribution centre in 2018 and expansion into Ghana, the drone technology now serves 22 million people across the two countries.

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