Before Amazon or Google ever delivered packages by drone in North America, Rwanda was using drones to save peoples’ lives by delivering urgently needed blood and medicines to hospitals around the country. And being the earliest adopter, Rwanda led the way in charting flexible approaches to safely controlling drone traffic at a time when regulatory hurdles in the west had stalled commercial use of drones.
The Rwandan government partnered with Zipline, an American startup company, to launch the world’s first commercial drone delivery service in December 2016. “The reality is,” says Zipline co-founder Keller Rinaudo, “moms die in every country in the world for [lack of blood]. Rwanda was just the first country to do something about it.”
Rwanda’s doctors had been used to long waits. “Before, it took at least three hours to get blood in an emergency,” says Dr. Roger Nyonzima, head surgeon at Nyanza Hospital’s maternity ward, which is about 100 km from the capital city, Kigali. Now, thanks to Zipline, blood arrived in 15 minutes. “Fifteen minutes, we can work with.”
He was amazed when he first heard about the plan. “I knew there were drones for surveillance, and I knew that militaries use them to kill enemies, but I didn’t know that drones could save lives,” he told Time. At least ten women a day give birth in his maternity ward, and at least twice a week, an urgent case requires more blood, or a different blood type, than is on hand. The staff texts Zipline, and within minutes, the delivery is on its way.
The Rwanda-Zipline story began back in 2014 when robotics expert Rinaudo and aviation consultant Will Hetzler, who had been roommates at Harvard, met computer programmer and public health researcher Zachary Mtema at Tanzania’s Ifakara Health Institute. Mtema had built a mobile alert system so health workers could text emergency requests for medicine and vaccines, but governments had no way to fulfill those requests.
Scrolling through thousands of entries, Rinaudo and Hetzler thought drone deliveries were the obvious solution for getting the right medicines to the right place, quickly. “Zipline could build the other half of that system and save the majority of those people’s lives,” Rinaudo said. “Zipline isn’t a drone company,” he says. “Zipline is a healthcare logistics company.”
Zipline now has two bases in Rwanda. Its original base is busier than the Kigali airport, with drones being loaded up with blood or medicines requested by text and quickly dispatched to drop the package via parachute near the hospital that ordered it, having sent a message to the hospital once it is nearby so that the hospital knows the exact arrival time.
In 2017, the Rwandan government of Rwanda partnered with the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution to create an agile, performance-based regulatory model that could be used by other regulators and policy-makers. By specifying the mission’s safety standard, and drone operators specifying how they would meet it, Rwanda created agile regulation that meant it could keep up with the technology’s rapid development.
Earlier this month, the Forum published a story entitled 5 lessons from Africa on how drones could transform medical supply chains, listing lessons learned and areas where work is still needed. “Drones provide a potential avenue for ensuring that everyone, no matter where they live, has access to high quality healthcare. Africa has been a global leader in the field of drones with the first national scale drone delivery programme launching in Rwanda in 2016 and the world’s first drone delivery of a COVID Vaccine taking place in Ghana during March of this year. African countries are showing the rest of the world the social and economic value that can be provided by this technology.”
5 lessons from Africa on how drones could transform medical supply chains. World Economic Forum, Apr. 9, 2021
What the world can learn from Rwanda’s use of drones. World Economic Forum, Jan. 2019.
The American drones saving lives in Rwanda. Time, 2017.
Drones for humanitarian aid. Dronesbelow. Nov. 27, 2018