The world’s first drone medical delivery service has taken flight in Rwanda, a tiny nation in southeast Africa.
The delivery service, a joint project of the Rwandan government and U.S.-based company Zipline, will deliver much-needed blood to remote medical centers and clinics that would otherwise need to await delivery over land.
Rwanda’s infrastructure is in relatively good shape compared to its neighbors, with large paved roads in major urban areas and two-lane paved roads connecting the largest cities and border crossings. But away from those roads the passageways are mostly dirt, varying widely in quality from regularly maintained gravel surfaces to all but impassable 4x4 tracks that connect towns and villages. As you might expect, that makes for long travel times (especially during the six-month rainy season), and makes it difficult to ship perishable goods and other time-sensitive stuff. That unfortunately includes medical supplies: Patients requiring blood transfusions need to wait on shipments from Kigali, which can be a long time coming and potentially spoil en route.
The concept is straightforward: Zipline will keep 15 internally designed drones at a launch point in Muhanga District, in western Rwanda. When a health care provider from rural western Rwanda needs blood, anticoagulants, or some other time-sensitive medical material, they’ll text Zipline. The company will load up the drones (dubbed “Zips”) with up to 1.5kg of supplies, insert a SIM card programmed with the flight plan, and fire it off. The Zips are fixed-wing and without wheels, meaning if they land they’ll need help taking off again, so the drones will simply fly overhead and drop their supplies in a parachute-equipped box outside the hospital, then return home. The Zips are battery powered, with two small electric engines, and capable of 150km round trips—enough to cover nearly the entire western half of the small nation—and Zipline plans a 30-minute time between order and liftoff. The company expects to make up to 150 such trips per day.
But there are a few things standing in the way of Zipline and uncompromised success, which may limit this model of medical delivery. For one thing, the Zips still rely upon Rwanda’s impressive infrastructure: the SIM picks up signals from the microwave transmitters that send and receive cellphone calls. Of course, for that to happen, there must be a series of cellphone base stations covering all potential flight routes—cellphone transceivers are relatively short-range—and they must have constant electricity, which can be a problem even in large urban centers.
Rwanda, which 20 years ago suffered horrific levels of violence and ethnic cleansing, is today considered safe—so long as you don’t cross the authoritarian government, run by Paul Kagame, which has allegedly muzzled newspapers, assassinated perceived threats, and brooked no meaningful internal disagreement. As the BBC points out, the perception of drones as spying devices—not entirely undeserved—and ensuring control such capabilities may partly explain the Rwandan government’s enthusiastic participation. Certainly Zips would be eyed suspiciously in places with major security issues, like parts of eastern Congo, South Sudan, or eastern Nigeria, though people in any of those places could benefit greatly from a Zipline-like medical delivery service.