Send a WhatsApp message to a group of Indian 20-somethings and you might just get a bag of blood in return.
It’s a lot less sketchy than it sounds.
India has a blood-waste problem, and recent college grads Anshul Sharma, Arunabha Bhattacharya, and Rishabh Gupta aim to fix it with a fleet of shiny new drones, a few messaging apps, and some ice packs.
Despite the fact that the country has been facing a deadly blood shortage for years, over half a million units of usable blood are discarded by blood banks and hospitals each year, according to a 2017 report by the Times of India. The issue? Inefficiency.
India lacks a centralized blood-sharing network, leaving most treatment centers and blood banks essentially on their own when it comes to procuring enough blood to keep their patients alive. If, say, a blood bank in Vidarbha has an influx of donations while a bank in Madhya Pradesh has run dry, it’s unlikely that the latter bank would even be aware of its neighbor’s surplus, much less initiate a transfer. Though there’s ostensibly an online system dedicated to tracking each bank’s inventory, it’s rarely used.
Med-tech start-up Bloodstream aims to pick up the slack. Armed with a fleet of custom-made drones designed to transport fragile medical cargo and a partnership with India’s Life Line Blood Bank, the company aims to revolutionize the health-supply chain and bring much-needed medical resources to hard-to-access rural areas, starting with blood. Sharma, who is CEO of the company and its parent company Air Aid, recently told the Times of India that Bloodstream had already made successful deliveries to Karnataka, West Bengal, and Nepal.
It works like this: Hospitals in need of blood, vaccines, or other basic medicines reach out to Bloodstream via SMS, WhatsApp, or over the phone to indicate that they’re running low. The request is then sent to the nearest Bloodstream drone stationed at a blood bank with a surplus of that particular item. The blood is placed inside a specially designed lightweight carrying container inside the drone, along with a gel ice pack to keep it from coagulating or otherwise getting ruined. The drone then flies to the rural area at a speed of around 68 miles per hour. (The Indian government and air-traffic control mandate a specific flying altitude and speed for drone-delivery companies like Bloodstream.) A couple of minutes before the drone reaches its destination, the hospital workers are notified that a drop-off is imminent so they can step outside to grab their delivery. The drone then drops the package (which has a rather adorable mini-parachute attached to ensure a safe landing) in a designated seven-by-seven-meter delivery zone and then flies off to continue along its route.
All in all, it’s a particularly impressive feat, especially given that any combination of the words “blood” and “drones” would have seemed like a particularly hack bout of science fiction a mere three years ago. The first-ever proof-of-concept study indicating that drone-based blood transportation could even be feasible came out in 2015. Now, drone-based medical deliveries are, well … taking off.
Ultimately, the issue at hand is one of communication — between blood banks and hospitals, sure, but also across often-overlooked rural and urban divides. In reducing some of the inefficiencies that plague its bloated health-care system, India hopes to get one step closer to ending the country’s blood shortage. Only then will they be able to begin to tackle the countless other problems that befall a medical industry the size of India’s — though those problems probably won’t warrant solutions as cool as flying blood drones.