In Rwanda, drones come to cure, not kill

In Rwanda, drones come to cure, not kill

An American company is using drones to deliver blood to clinics in Rwanda. This is a quick, cheap and – crucially – profitable innovation that could save thousands of lives, and revolutionise both healthcare and transport on the continent. By SIMON ALLISON.

When it comes to Africa, policy-makers love talking about the “leapfrog” effect; the idea that new technology can help African countries skip over whole stages of traditional development. No fixed phone lines? No problem, because cellular networks let people talk to each other from pretty much anywhere. No banks? No worries, because mobile money innovations like M-Pesa and Dahabshiil allow people to save and transfer funds without having to rely on formal institutions.

Last week, in Rwanda, the continent witnessed yet another major leapfrog, one which may just revolutionise both healthcare and transport. It was here, in the “country of a thousand hills”, that Zipline, an American robotics company, launched its first commercial drone flight to a medical centre in the west of the country.

Sprung into the air by catapult from a newly constructed drone base in Muhanga District, the drone flew about five minutes before dropping its package, which landed with a thud on the lawn outside the Kabgayi District Hospital. Inside the package were cartons of blood, needed for life-saving transfusions. Before, the hospital would have had to despatch a car to obtain blood from the capital, Kigali, a round trip that takes a minimum of three hours, but usually much longer.

In Rwanda, as in much of Africa, road networks are often non-existent or poorly maintained. This means that travel between towns and villages takes much longer than it should do, and the situation is exacerbated during the rainy season, when dirt roads can become impassable. These delays are frustrating for the average traveller, but they can also be fatal for patients in need of urgent medical supplies or attention.

Throughout the developing world, access to lifesaving and critical health products is hampered by what is known as the last-mile problem: the inability to deliver needed medicine from a city to rural or remote locations due to lack of adequate transportation, communication and supply chain infrastructure…

During Rwanda’s lengthy rainy season, many roads wash out, becoming impassable or non-existent. The result is that all too often someone in need of a lifesaving transfusion cannot access the blood they need to survive,” explained Zipline in a statement.

But it turns out that the solution to Rwanda’s terrible road infrastructure may not to build new ones, but to avoid roads entirely.

Zipline’s plan is to make deliveries of blood (and, eventually, other medical supplies) from the air. The company operates 15 drones from its Rwandan base, each capable of taking a 1.5kg bag of blood (enough for a transfusion for one patient) on a 150km round trip. It claims to be able to respond to orders directly from clinics within 30 minutes, and is eventually planning on making 50-150 flights per day to 21 transfusion clinics in the region (right now, it only serves two). Each delivery will be charged at roughly the same price as a motorcycle courier.

The drone programme currently can only reach transfusion centres in the western half of the country, but Zipline and Rwanda plan to roll it out to the eastern half next year with the construction of another base. Initially, it will supplement existing blood delivery networks, but the end goal is to replace them entirely.

The concept of delivery by drone is not new. In 2014, online retailer Amazon made global headline when it announced plans to ship its products to customers by drone, although these plans remain very much in the testing phase. In the same year, Doctors Without Borders trialled tuberculosis testing by drone in Papua New Guinea, using drones to collect sputum samples from rural patients.

But Zipline’s Rwanda project is different. For one thing, it is far more extensive than anything that has come before, and will provide lessons for the likes of Amazon on just how feasible drone deliveries really are.

The whole world is going to be looking at Rwanda,” Justin Hamilton, a company spokesman, told Daily Maverick. The last time the whole world looked at Rwanda was during the 1994 genocide; that it is now on the cutting edge of technological innovation is a stark reminder of how far the country has come.

Even more important, however, is that the business is intended to be commercially viable.

Zipline is a for-profit company, but with a social mission,” said Hamilton. Too often, health and humanitarian innovations in Africa arrive courtesy of well-meaning donors, who can’t guarantee the sustainability of any projects. But Rwanda’s new drone delivery network will operate as a business, which means that it is not dependant on the vagaries of international funding priorities. There is real long-term potential here.

If Zipline succeeds in Rwanda, the company may also help to change perceptions around drones in Africa. Unmanned vehicles are more usually associated with military rather than medical purposes; in particular, they have been used by the United States to target militants (and sometimes civilians) in Somalia.

Hamilton says the company is aware of concerns that their product may be used for more malicious purposes; that dropping bombs would be just as easy as dropping blood. He maintains, however, that Zipline’s model means that all aircraft are loaded and operated exclusively by Zipline personnel, so there is no opportunity for governments or armed groups to misuse them. Let’s hope he’s right, and that Zipline’s drones really are the technological leapfrog they promise to be. DM

Photo: This photo of Rwandan President Paul Kagame launching a drone on October 14, 2016 in Muhanga District was taken by Cedric Kagimbanyi (@kagcedRW) and shared on Twitter


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