On 14 October 2016, the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, launched the world’s first blood delivery service using remotely piloted aircraft more commonly known as drones.
As quoted by Gavi (The Vaccine Alliance), President Kagame is reported to have said “Drones are very useful, both commercially and for improving services in the health sector. We are happy to be launching this innovative technology and to continue working with the partners to develop it further.”
Muhanga District in southern Uganda was selected as the pilot project site for the transportation of much-needed medical supplies using drones. The drones will be used to deliver blood, plasma and coagulants to hospitals and will help to cut waiting times from hours to minutes. All a health worker has to do is send a simple cell phone text message placing a product order.
Once a drone arrives at its destination it does not need to land. thereby avoiding the risks of hospital staff and recipients getting in the way of rotating blades. Instead, the drones will release their packages, containing potentially lifesaving supplies, from parachutes.
California based company, Zipline Inc, is responsible for building and managing the infrastructure. They will be paid by Rwanda’s health department on a per delivery basis with the company claiming that the current cost of each trip is roughly the same as the current motorbike or ambulance delivery method, except that it is much faster.
Said Keller Rinaudo, Zipline Inc CEO, who was also speaking to Gavi, “The inability to deliver lifesaving medicines to people who need them most causes millions of preventable deaths each year around the world.” He added that “We’ve built an instant delivery system for the world, allowing medicine to be delivered on-demand and at low-cost, anywhere.”
As part of the pilot project an initial 15 drones, also referred to as “zips” will be deployed. Each zip is powered by a nose- mounted battery, will navigate itself using GPS location data signals, is capable of flying around the clock and can adequately cope in winds of 30 km/h or light rains if required to do so.
To take off each drone is launched into the air via a catapult and will fly under a height of 500 feet (152 metres) so as to avoid the airspace used by regular planes. At present, they have an operational range of 150 km (93 miles) but could, in theory, fly almost twice that distance. This will be tested in greater detail during the pilot phase of the project.
The use of drones for purposes like this raises some interesting questions related to privacy, security, and other concerns. The BBC reports that “Commercial use of drones is still a nascent industry in Africa but there is a small but growing community of hobbyists.”
However, it adds that “Most governments on the continent have clamped down on drone operators by imposing laws than ban or restrict their use, inadvertently killing innovation and locking the countries out of investments that could create jobs.”
In promoting the use of drones for humanitarian purposes Rwanda seems to be leading the way whereas in Ghana, drone operators who don’t register their drones, can face up to 30 years in prison.
The launch of the pilot project came only nine months after the Government of Rwanda had entered into an agreement with Zipline Inc which builds infrastructure for un-manned aerial systems to ensure the more efficient and timely transportation of medical supplies around Rwanda.