In a warehouse outside of Kigali, Rwanda, 15 drones sit waiting to receive a message. When the text comes in, one loads up and zips off into the sky – on a mission to save a life. Today, the government of Rwanda announced an emergency drone delivery service. These drones will make up to 150 trips per day, carrying blood supplies to clinics in need. Rwanda has relatively good infrastructure in some places, but in others it can be unreliable, says Moz Siddiqui at the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), one of the partners in the project, along with UPS and California drone company Zipline.
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.
The company is continuing its review of the potential to use drones someday in its global package delivery system, teaming with two partners to deliver blood supplies later this year in Rwanda. The company, through its UPS Foundation, has committed 800,000 toward the project with Zipline, a California robotics company; and Gavi, a Swiss-based group that works to bring vaccines to children in poor countries. UPS said that starting later this year, the Rwandan government intends to begin using Zipline drones to delivery blood to 21 transfusing facilities in the western half of the country. The goal is to step up the battle against the deaths of women who hemorrhage after giving birth. The additional blood can allow for life-saving transfusions on a continent known for the world's high rates of maternal death, according to the World Health Organization.
You can hear the drone before it's visible, whining like a mosquito above the hillside grounds of Rwanda's Kabgayi District Hospital. Emerging through a patch of fog, roughly 100 feet in the air, the small plane quickly disappears again, circling in an oblong pattern as it descends toward an altitude low enough to make its drop. After a period of silence, it's suddenly back, swooping over the roof of Kabgayi's accident ward to drop its payload on the driveway with a thud. On the ground lies a red cardboard container, roughly the size of a shoebox, attached to a parachute made of wax paper and biodegradable tape. The contraption may resemble a children's art project, but its contents are lifesaving.