Rwanda now using drones to deliver blood to remote hospitals

Friday October 14 2016

A drone drops of a package containing medical supplies. PHOTO | ZIPLINE

A drone drops of a package containing medical supplies. PHOTO | ZIPLINE 

By Jean-Pierre Afadhali and Edmund Kagire

Rwanda has launched drone operations to deliver medical supplies to hospitals in remote areas, with the first cargo on Friday, batches of blood to Kabgayi hospital.

President Paul Kagame inaugurated the national drone delivery service in Muhanga district, in southern Rwanda, hailed as the first of its kind in the world.

California-based robotics firm Zipline is pioneering the application of the pilotless aircrafts to medical deliveries and hopes its success in Rwanda will see it expand its operations in Africa, the US and globally.

Poor transport network including impassable roads during the rainy season, coupled with lack of adequate supply chain infrastructure have hampered the access of healthcare for a majority of the country’s 11 million citizens most of whom live in the rural areas.

The government and Zipline, under a public-private partnership, hope to address these challenges by delivering live-saving blood and medicines to far-flung parts of the country in a faster and more efficient manner.

“Rwanda has chosen to press ICT at the core of our development strategy because we recognise its power to change lives and contribute to the rapid social economic transformation we want,” President Kagame said.

At Muhanga, where Zipline has set its drone base, the president launched the first flight to one of the first five hospitals under the pilot project. The drone carried the blood package attached to a parachute to its drop off point at Kabgayi, two kilometres away, and returned to base.

Fifteen Zipline drones are expected to make up to 150 on-demand emergency deliveries per day to 21 hospitals located in the western half of the country but the service will be rolled out to the rest of the country by early 2017.

Blood "is a very precious commodity so you cannot just stock a lot of it in every single heath centre," said Keller Rinaudo, CEO of Zipline, adding that he hopes his drone delivery system will "allow the Rwandan government to instantly deliver life-saving transfusions to any citizen in the country in 15 to 30 minutes."

Zipline plans to open a second base in Rwanda next year meaning the whole of the small country will be within range.

US logistics giant UPS and the global vaccine alliance have also invested $1.1 million in the project that will see the expansion of delivery to other the types of medicines and vaccines.

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

How it will work

  • Hospitals in need of blood place their orders by cell phone text message.
  • The orders will be received at the Zipline base in Muhanga where the firm has its 15 drones called Zips.
  • The blood is packed in small boxes with parachutes and loaded to the Zip. The drone is then programmed using GPS location data and launched from a catapult. Each Zip can fly up to 150km round trip—even in about 30km/h wind and light rain—and carry 1.5kg of blood, about three pints of blood.
  • The Zips, flying at about 70km/h, are estimated to make the drop within 30 minutes from a height of around 20 metres at the designated spot called the mailbox and return to base. While in flight, Zipline technicians monitor the drones movement using their computers.
  • At the base, the battery-powered drones weighing about 13kg are recharged and prepared for next take off.

Additional reporting by Agencies.