MUHANGA, Rwanda 

“Three, two, one, launch!” And with
that, catapulted from a ramp, the small fixed-wing drone buzzes into the air
towards its destination, Kabgayi Hospital two kilometres away.

Rwanda has inaugurated a drone
operation that its backers hope will kickstart a revolution in the supply of
medical care in rural parts of Africa, in the first instance by delivering
batches of blood to 21 clinics.

Maternal mortality rates in Africa
are among the highest on the globe largely due to postpartum haemorrhage caused
by lack of access to blood transfusions.

Rwanda is no exception, and the
situation here is worsened by the topography of a country dubbed “the land of a
thousand hills” as well as intense seasonal rains.

This makes the transport of blood by
road often long and difficult.

“Blood is a very precious commodity
so you cannot just stock a lot of it in every health centre,” said Keller
Rinaudo, CEO of Zipline, a California-based robotics company that designed the
15 drones and the base housing them in Muhanga, 50 kilometres west of Kigali.


Riaudo hopes his system will allow
the government to instantly deliver life-saving transfusions to any citizen in
the country in 15 to 30 minutes.

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

For the Rwandan government, blood
delivery by drone is not cheaper, but it promises to be much faster.

The drones dubbed “Zips” are shaped
like a fat-bellied miniature plane with a two-metre wingspan.
They are battery-powered with a
range of around 150 kilometres, weigh 13 kilogrammes and can carry a cargo of
about 1.5 kilos, or three bags of blood.

Flying at up to 70 kilometres per hour, it is predicted every drone could make
as many as 150 deliveries a day.

At the tent that serves as a launch
station, Zipline technicians monitor the drones from laptops while others
prepare the payload: Small cardboard boxes with paper parachutes that will hold
the blood and be dropped from a height of around 20 metres.

As the test flights were carried
out, curious residents peered through the fence, watching as the drones were
flung into the air, returning after dropping their cargo at the hospital, and
landing on an inflatable mattress.

Zipline plans to open a second base
in Rwanda next year, meaning the whole of the tiny country would be within

“These flights will save lives,”
said Gregg Svingen, head of communications at UPS. “Today it is blood, tomorrow
it will be vaccines.”

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