BLOOD DELIVERY: A drone delivers blood

Rwandan President Paul Kagame will formally announce the launch of the drone blood delivery program at a ceremony in Kigali today.

The drones, manufactured by California robotics company Zipline, will begin delivering blood to 21 transfusing facilities in the remote areas of western Rwanda, where poor roads and healthcare infrastructure have often made it difficult to reach patients in need.

Zipline announced its partnership with the Rwandan government earlier this year, and has spent the last several months testing its launch system at a distribution center in the Muhanga region.

The distribution center houses 15 custom-built drones, known as ‘Zips’ which can fly up to 150 kilometers, round-trip, and carry up to 1.5 kilograms of blood. Hospitals can order blood via text message and have it parachuted to their location in 15 minutes, on average, eliminating the need for onboard refrigeration or insulation.

Drone delivery systems have been slow to take off in the US, but the Rwandan government has fully embraced the technology. The country formalized drone regulations earlier this year, and is currently building a drone airport that is scheduled for completion in 2020. The hope is that Zipline’s system can help reach people in desperate need of transfusions, including mothers suffering from postpartum hemorrhaging, which is the leading cause of maternal mortality worldwide.

“I think a lot of people are very cynical in terms of drone delivery because it’s just not practical,” says Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo, in part because standard quadcopters can fly for a limited range. But with Zipline’s fleet, he says, “you can do hundreds of deliveries a day, where each delivery is potentially saving a human life.”

Zipline began its first blood deliveries this week, and plans to expand to eastern Rwanda by early next year. Rinaudo says deliveries in western Rwanda will reach about 7 million people, covering an area of around 7,000 square miles.

Zipline has also partnered with UPS and GAVI, the Bill Gates-backed vaccine fund, to explore how the system could be used to deliver vaccines and other medicines.

Rinaudo says the company is also looking to expand to other countries across East Africa.