January 16, 2019
Drones may one day make your life easier by delivering pizza, but today—in Rwanda—they are already playing a vital role in emergency medical services.
Back in 2014 Keller Rinaudo met a graduate student at the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania. The student had built a mobile alert system for health workers to text emergency requests for medicine and vaccines. Health workers made thousands of emergency requests, which had never before been possible. Unfortunately, there was no way for the government to fulfill these requests.“I realized then that I was looking at a database of death with thousands of names, addresses, ages, phone numbers,” says Rinaudo.Having already founded Silicon Valley–based drone startup Zipline, Rinaudo had discovered its mission. “Zipline could build the other half of that system and save the majority of those people’s lives,” he says. Better known for their use in warfare or for buzzing overhead in urban areas taking photographs, unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are often tightly regulated. The small African nation of Rwanda, however, has taken a more positive attitude toward their application.
The country’s President, Paul Kagame, is feared and feted in equal quantities, accused of coopting Rwanda’s democratic system but also praised for presiding over a regime that has put technology at the heart of the land locked country’s development. Mountainous Rwanda has 3,000 miles of road, but only 25% of that is paved, and much of it is washed away during rainy seasons. This makes transportation tough, and hospitals struggle to procure blood and vaccines in emergency situations. It was in conversations with Rinaudo in 2015 that the government suggested Zipline try to fix the problem. Rwandan airspace was opened to the company, and Zipline started its delivery service in October 2016. Remote clinics can now place orders for lifesaving blood via text message, with drones dispatched from fulfillment centers dotted around the country to deliver it. Since its launch, Zipline drones have own over 300,000 miles on more than 10,000 flights, delivering thousands of units of blood.
Timothy Reuter, head of the civil drones program at the World Economic Forum, says the impact is significant. “Drone delivery can help prevent stock-outs of critical medical items and eliminate wastage from expiration by providing just-in-time delivery from a central location,” he says. “In practical terms, this can mean the difference between a mother bleeding to death during childbirth or receiving the transfusion she needs.” This is just the start for Zipline, however, and Rwanda is just its first market. In April, the company unveiled what it claims is the world’s fastest delivery drone. The next generation drone can reach a top speed of 80 miles per hour with a roundtrip range covering 100 miles, carrying up to 1.75 kilograms of cargo (one blood pack typically weighs 0.5 kg). Rinaudo says Zipline has decreased the amount of time between receiving an order and launching a flight from 10 minutes to one, and increased the number of possible daily delivery flights from each fulfillment center to 500. The increased radius of each center means the company can now serve populations of up to 10 million people. In 2017, Zipline made neighboring Tanzania, almost 40 times the size of Rwanda and with almost 70% of its people living in rural areas, its second market, and it has received the backing of venture capital firms—securing over $40 million in funding. It is also set to launch back home in the U.S.
Reuter says the impact the company has had in Rwanda is exceptional, but its value goes even beyond that. “Zipline is playing an important role not just in the markets it currently operates but also in demonstrating to countries around the world that drone delivery can be a reality today and provide a socially impactful service,” he says. “As drone technology evolves from carrying small, lightweight items to a heavier lift capacity and goes down in cost, we expect to see drone delivery used for a greater variety of commercial activities,” Reuter says. “In the African context, this could include transport of agricultural goods that are often damaged during long journeys on trucks.” Though these commercial-use cases are clear and the opportunities sizable, Rinaudo is more focused on the job currently at hand. “Billions of people across the world lack access to adequate health care. This isn’t an African problem; it’s a global problem,” he says. “The difference is that African countries are leading the way in developing cutting-edge solutions.”