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The world’s first drone delivery system sends urgent medicines to African countries

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For a Western hospital, it is a routine, if traumatic, event that staff are equipped to deal with day in, day out.
But for a young woman in Rwanda, a sudden bleed during labour could prove fatal.

There was no blood of the right group available at the remote clinic looking after Alice Mutimiutugye when she needed life-saving transfusions. However, this time, salvation arrived in the nick of time in an unlikely form: a small package on a paper parachute dropped by a drone. It was flown in from 80 kilometres away half an hour after Mutimiutugye’s doctors placed the order.

Mutimiutugye, 23, from Nyange, west of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, is at the forefront of a technology driven health revolution pioneered in Africa.

The 11kg battery-powered craft is part of one of the world’s first national drone delivery networks, started in Rwanda by a Silicon Valley company, that has made more than 950 life-saving drops in the past year.

The service is now being expanded to be within reach of Rwanda’s entire 12 million population. Next, it will spread to Tanzania, its neighbour, where deliveries will include a wider range of medical supplies, including anti-venom for snake bites, rabies prophylaxis, HIV drugs and vaccinations.

Drones

Saved by a drone Alice Mutimiutugye’s life was saved by a drone that delivered a package of blood for her where she was being treated at a remote clinic

In the crowded skies of the West, drone services have struggled. Reality has failed to match the hype of deliveries by the likes of Amazon, but in the quieter skies over Africa, drone technology is literally taking off.

In South Africa and Zimbabwe, rangers use drones equipped with night-vision cameras to track poachers. In Cameroon, a start-up firm is providing aerial mapping and imaging services for business and government.

In Sudan, farmers use them to sow seeds. Keller Rinaudo, co-founder and chief executive of Zipline, the US company behind the African drones, said: “Small countries can move much faster in seizing the benefits of disruptive technology.” Rinaudo set up Zipline with Keenan Wyrobek in 2011. Their staff includes veterans of Google, Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

In Rwanda, doctors send in an order online to a warehouse, where medical supplies are kept in a state-of-the-art storage facility. Staff pack the blood into a box tethered to a parachute and fix it to the drone, known as a Zip.

The Zip is catapulted into the sky and, using military grade GPS navigation, flies a pre-programmed route at up to 120kmph, with Rwandan air traffic control informed of its flight path.

The Zip needs no facilities at the drop zone except a clear area the size of two parking spaces. It knows its location to within a centimetre.

A text message alerts the doctor just before the Zip arrives. The craft then descends to within six metres before releasing its load. To land back at base, the Zip lowers a hook that catches a wire, pulling it down to earth on an inflatable landing pad in a technique Zipline calls “aircraft carrier meets bouncy castle”.

The company found fixed-wing craft sturdier in poor weather than the more familiar rotocopter design.

So far, the 15 Zips in Rwanda have flown more than 320,000 kilometres, delivering 7,000 units of blood in 7,500 on-demand flights. A second base, opening this year, will extend coverage with an extra 30-35 drones.

Zipline’s network in Tanzania will reflect the far larger size of the country. Four bases will each be equipped with 30 craft capable of 500 flights a day.

Zipline is co-operating with the Rwandan and Tanzanian governments to put in place rapid-response plans to deal with disease outbreaks as soon as they are detected.

“If you stop an outbreak in the first week, it costs maybe a hundredth of what it will cost once it has spread,” said Mr Rinaudo. It also lowers the risk of a contagious disease pandemic.

Rwanda is building on its worldwide lead; last month, the country announced a deal with the World Economic Forum and the Fourth Industrial Revolution Center in California to produce the world’s first regulatory framework that will integrate drone-operating into a national air traffic control system.

My prayer is that everyone who needs it gets it just like I did. I feel blessed that I received that blood.
Alice Mutimiutugye received life saving blood

The West may slowly be catching up. Five projects are on trial in Britain to deliver parcels, medical supplies and organs for transplant. The government has promised a drones bill later this year that could pave the way for their wider use. And British farmers are already using the craft to monitor crops.

For now, however, Zipline is focusing on medical deliveries. As Mutimiutugye said: “My prayer is that everyone who needs it gets it just like I did. I feel blessed that I received that blood.”




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