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Medical drones take flight in Rwanda

Stumai George
October 14, 2016

Rwanda's government has launched a drone network capable of delivering vital blood supplies to far-flung areas. It's hoped the speedy delivery service will help save lives in hard-to-reach parts of the country.

Rwanda Drone Pictures
Image: DW/G. Kowene

At an inauguration ceremony in Rwanda's Muhanga District on Friday, drones delivered batches of blood to 21 clinics in the west of the country. Spectators watched as the first fixed-wing drone buzzed into the air in the direction of its pre-programmed destination: the Kabgayi hospital, about two kilometers (1.2 miles) away.

The technology was designed by Zipline, a California-based robotics company that hopes to make it possible for life-saving transfusions to be delivered to any clinic in the country.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, who attended the launch, said that with the right support the 15-drone system could be a huge help for doctors.

"In order for us to gain the full benefit, we need to provide relevant education and training as well as communicating to our citizens the importance of this new technology," Kagame said.

Rwanda Drone Pictures
President Paul Kagame visits Rwanda's first drone control center in Muhanga Image: DW/G. Kowene

Life-saving technology

US package-delivery giant UPS and global vaccine alliance Gavi have invested $1.1 million (about 1 million euros) in the Zipline project, one of a handful on the continent seeking to harness the potential of delivery drones to overcome poor infrastructure.

"These flights will save lives," Gregg Svingen, head of communications at UPS, told AFP. "Today it is blood, tomorrow it will be vaccines."

The 13-kilogram (29-pound) drones, nicknamed "Zips," are flung into the air with a catapult, and deliveries are made using a biodegradable parachute. They are battery powered and can cover a distance of around 150 kilometers.

After watching the launch, Kaspar Kundert, the head of a Kigali-based software company, had high praise for the drone technology.

"Rwanda is a good place to test it and, if needed, to further adapt it," he said. "They reassured us about flight security and security of the people on the ground. It's a very interesting application of new technologies."

Rwanda Drone Pictures
A nurse picks up a blood pack delivered by a Zipline drone at Kabgayi hospital, 50 kilometers west of the capital, KigaliImage: DW/G. Kowene

'Land of a thousand hills'

Transporting blood by road is often a long and difficult process in Rwanda, dubbed "the land of a thousand hills." But using drones to deliver vital supplies could drastically improve medical care in rural parts of the East African country. The "Zips," capable of flying at speeds of up to 70 kilometers per hour, can make as many as 150 deliveries a day.

Maternal mortality rates in Africa are among the highest in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Most of those deaths are due to postpartum bleeding caused by lack of access to simple blood transfusions.

Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo hopes the drone service will "allow the Rwandan government to instantly deliver life-saving transfusions to any citizen in the country in 15 to 30 minutes."

Blood "is a very precious commodity so you cannot just stock a lot of it in every single heath centre," he added. "Our long-term goal is to deliver the entire medical supply chain. So we plan to deliver vaccines, rabies prophylaxis, anti-venom, oxytocin as well as a whole host of other medical products that hospitals might have run out of."

Zipline plans to open a second base in Rwanda next year, which would make it possible for the drone service to cover the entire country.  

Gaius Kawene in Rwanda contributed to this report.