Last month in Rwanda, a young woman started bleeding after giving birth by C-section. Try as they might, her doctors couldn't stop it. They'd already transfused the two units of matching blood that they had on-hand. They could have called the national blood bank in the capital of Kigali to request more, but ordering it, and sending it the 25 miles over mountainous roads to the hospital would take up to four hours. The woman didn't have that kind of time.
The fight against malaria has been improving, but there's still lots more work to do. For one thing, anti-larval sprays are both expensive and time-consuming -- you can't always afford to spray an entire area. Thankfully, a mix of technology is making that mosquito battle more practical. Wales' Aberystwyth University and Tanzania's Zanzibar Malaria Elimination Programme have partnered on an initiative that uses drones to survey malaria hot zones and identify the water-laden areas where malaria-carrying mosquitoes are likely to breed.
The drone makes a conspicuous racket as it lifts off on a mission to capture images of the reservoir below. The sight and sound of this strange device stirs interest among locals as they make their way to and from the town of Kasungu in central Malawi. It takes a matter of minutes for a small crowd to form. A few yards away, Patrick Kalonde is wading through grass and mud. Patrick, an intern at Unicef working on humanitarian uses of drones, is carrying a plastic container and a ladle and is looking for mosquito larvae. The contrast between high-tech drones and low-tech "bucket-and-spade" science, metres apart, could not be starker – yet both are equally important to the success of our new project to map where mosquitoes breed. Kasungu, a small town at the base of the picturesque Kasungu Mountain, is the centre of Africa's first humanitarian drone testing corridor. Set up by Unicef in 2017 with support from the Malawi government, the corridor is an 80km-wide area for flying and testing drones to help the local people. Keen to dispel the reputation that drones are only useful for destruction, the Unicef corridor promotes "drones for good".
The UK government is to fund a trial of drone-based deliveries of blood and other medical supplies in Tanzania. The goal is to radically reduce the amount of time it takes to send stock to health clinics in the African nation by road or other means. The scheme involves Zipline, a Silicon Valley start-up that began running a similar service in Rwanda in October. Experts praised that initiative but cautioned that "cargo drones" are still of limited use to humanitarian bodies. The Department for International Development (Dfid) has not said how much money will be invested in the Tanzanian effort or for how long.
Crowded airspace and complicated regulations have so far stalled drone deliveries in the United States, but in Rwanda -- where the flight paths are clearer and the red tape a little thinner -- drones are ready for takeoff courtesy of a partnership between UPS, Zipline and Gavi. The Rwandan government has signed a deal with the California-based robotics company Zipline to make its country the first ever to use a drone delivery system on a national scale. Zipline is partnering with the UPS Foundation and Gavi, the nonprofit vaccine alliance, to execute its plan to make up to 150 drone deliveries per day of live-saving blood to 21 health facilities across a broad swath of the western portion of Rwanda. The plan combines Zipline's resilient drone design with the supply chain expertise of UPS and Gavi's experience delivering vaccines to all parts of the world. The deliveries are promised to make it to the designated health facilities in around 30 minutes -- orders of magnitude faster than it takes now.