Innovation That Matters

Drones deliver medical supplies in Rwanda

Sport & Fitness

Zipline is a Californian startup that has partnered with the Rwandan government to create a national drone delivery system, sending medical supplies to remote places, quickly.

The application of drones is burgeoning. In the last few months alone, we’ve written about three innovations that use drone technology to provide solutions to environmental or humanitarian problems. This solar powered ‘aqua drone’ that collects marine waste from harbours, a US wildlife service that drops bait laced with vaccinations to prairie dogs, and a humanitarian food delivery drone whose wings and body are made from food containers. Now, in Rwanda, the world’s first national drone delivery network is used to shuttle emergency medical supplies to patients in remote locations.

San Francisco based startup, Zipline, has partnered with the Rwandan government to set up the system. To use the system, a health worker can place an order by text message and a drone is dispatched. When they reach the hospitals, rather than landing, the small aircraft drops a package from very low altitudes. The supplies fall to earth suspended by simple paper parachutes and the unmanned planes return to their home base. They are then prepared for a new mission, swapping in a new battery and flight plan stored in a SIM card. The Zipline drones fly at approximately 100 km/h and can therefore reach remote locations much fast than other modes of transport, shuttling supplies in hours rather than weeks. The company is now running 150 deliveries a day to 21 health centers in the western part of the country with plans to expand to the eastern part of Rwanda.

Founders Keller Rinaudo and Mr. Hetzler explain that the toughest challenge was navigating Rwanda’s supply chain infrastructure: “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.”

Rwanda is one of the world’s poorest nations. In 2014, it was ranked 170th by gross domestic product by the International Monetary Fund. Over 2.9 million children die every year because of a lack of adequate access to essential medical products, often due to challenging terrain and gaps in infrastructure. Will drones be used to tackle humanitarian issues in other countries?


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