When a hospital in remote region of western Rwanda needs blood to save a life, now it can send a text message. Thirty minutes later or even faster a drone will arrive with a delivery, reaching areas that were often inaccessible in the past. It’s the world’s first national drone delivery network.
President Paul Kagame launched the project in Muhanga District which is the first of its kind in the world where drones will deliver medical supplies starting with blood.
The president said, such an innovation of medical supplies delivery using remotely piloted aircraft, should inspire more innovation and entrepreneurship in commercially viable technologies in the country.
Zipline, the San Francisco-based startup behind the network, partnered with the Rwandan government a year ago, and spent the last several months designing a system that works.
“The truth is, the vehicles themselves are only about 10% of the complexity of the system,” says CEO Keller Rinaudo. “Some of the biggest challenges of setting up a national drone delivery service have involved integrating with a public health supply chain and building all the infrastructure and equipment necessary to do 50 to 150 flights per day, reliably and routinely.”
One of the challenges was ensuring that their tech could work even in Rwanda’s rough weather. “It’s actually very easy to buy a quadcopter off the shelf and then make a delivery of a candy bar over two to four kilometers in perfect weather,” he says. “It’s really hard to build a system that can operate at national scale, fly in heavy wind and rain, and integrate with a much larger supply chain.”
The team rapidly iterated on nearly every part of the system, working closely with the hospitals that need blood deliveries, and testing parts every day—typically with an audience.
“Every day, we have hundreds of Rwandans lining up along the fence of the distribution center to watch operations,” says Rinaudo. “The whole crowd cheers for every single take-off and landing throughout the day. Some people show up at 6 am to get good seats.”
The first distribution center, which opened October 14 in Rwanda’s Muhanga District, was built in California, then loaded on a giant UPS plane and flown over; the cargo containers that held all of the components became part of the new base.
The center will make up to 150 deliveries a day to 21 health centers in the western part of the country. In early 2017, the network will expand to the eastern part of Rwanda. Over the next three years, it’s expected to save thousands of lives—particularly new mothers, who are at high risk of dying now from postpartum hemorrhage.
Locals are starting to call the drones “sky ambulances.”
“They know that the plane’s presence means that if a member of their family has a medical emergency, they’ll have access to the medical products they need to save their life,” says Rinaudo.
With a grant from the UPS Foundation, Zipline plans to begin delivering other medical supplies, such as medicine. It also plans to begin building drone delivery networks around the world—including to remote reservations in the United States.