How Drone Technology is Saving Lives in Africa

A woman in a small rural town in central Rwanda is about to deliver her first child. As staff at the mother’s local health center prepare for the delivery, a nurse sends a text message to a central command health facility several miles away. The mother is anemic and will likely need a blood transfusion.

The central health facility warehouses blood and other emergency medical supplies that can be delivered by drone in as little as 30 minutes. While one healthcare worker processes the order for blood, another worker programs GPS coordinates into the drone and preps it for the flight.

Rwanda will be home to the world’s first drone medical delivery network—responding to urgent needs for blood supplies to more than a dozen healthcare clinics throughout “the land of a thousand hills.”

It’s the height of Rwanda’s rainy season, which can make some of the country’s roads inaccessible to ground transportation. The drones aren’t fazed by inclement weather, road hazards and traffic delays. Their routes are, literally, “as the crow flies”—400 feet above the ground and up to 80 miles per hour.

GPS coordinates inform the central health facility and the destination healthcare center of the drone’s exact location throughout its trip. As the drone reaches its destination, it releases a parachuted package, which gracefully drifts to a waiting healthcare worker on the ground, and, without touching down, the drone returns to The Nest to recharge for its next flight. Meanwhile, the young mother receives a blood transfusion that saves her life.

Drones will be able to make 50 of these round-trip life-saving flights every day throughout Rwanda, which is slightly smaller than the U.S. state Maryland. It is a landlocked country in central/eastern Africa with a population about double Maryland’s, and three-fourths of its land is used for agriculture (Sources: CIA World Factbook and U.S. Census Bureau). The drone delivery network has the ability to reach about two-thirds of Rwanda’s land mass and 50 percent of its population in a single day with the potential to expand to the rest of the country next year.

Rwanda Drone Project

The medical supplies delivery project is the result of a partnership between the Rwanda government and three organizations:

  • UPS – The UPS Foundation contributed $1 million in funding and in-kind resources including logistics expertise, technical support, and technology innovation.
  • Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – Gavi has been involved in Rwanda and surrounding countries for many years, bringing public and private-sector organizations together to make vaccinations equally available for everyone.
  • Zipline – The Silicon Valley-based startup manufactures the 8-foot wingspan drones.

First Drone Delivery Network

Zipline’s founders told The New York Times that Rwanda will be the first country in the world to adopt a drone delivery network for medical aid, which is consistent with the country’s efforts over the last 15 years to improve the health and wellness for its citizens.

From 2000 to 2015, the World Health Organization reports, maternal mortality rate in Rwanda decreased about 72 percent; the use of drones to facilitate blood for transfusions has the potential to lower the maternal mortality rate even further.

Future Use of Drones in Healthcare

The implications for this project beyond delivering blood for transfusions are endless. It solves two key pain points in the healthcare industry’s global supply chain: speed and spoilage.

And blood delivery by drone is just the beginning. This technology can be used to deliver vaccines and treatments for HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, rabies, and other life-threatening illnesses not only in Rwanda but throughout Africa and around the world.

Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, spoke about the Rwanda drone network during a March 2016 lecture in London. “In an era of global health perils, we need to let our imaginations soar when looking for ways to get quality medical products to those in greatest need,” she said.

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