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".
ONCE THOUGHT OF AS A NICHE TOY for early adopters, drones can now be found buzzing over parks, in select cities, and are even being increasingly used for video production as the popularity of aerial photography soars. However, drones aren't only for fun and entertainment, and the high-pitched hum of their spinning propellers could replace the wail of ambulance sirens for global citizens as drones are put to work for humanitarian purposes. In March of 2017, DJI, the manufacturers of the most popular commercial drones, published a report about drones' life-saving capabilities, citing cases in which drones manned by volunteers or bystanders were used in emergency situations like floods and avalanches, resulting in 59 life-saving rescues in China, Canada, the U.S., and Turkey. Given that it takes 25 people 35 hours to search one square mile for missing persons, compared to the 30 minutes it takes a drone to cover the same area, regardless of treacherous conditions on the ground, drones are uniquely suited for search and rescue, even when piloted by hobbyists. Based on the increasing trend of drone use in the last 10 months covered by the report, DJI estimated that drones would be directly responsible for saving at least one person per week in the future.
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.
LONDON – Drones delivering blood and medicine to rural areas of Tanzania could help to save the lives of many mothers and newborn babies in a country where one of the biggest causes of maternal deaths is blood loss during childbirth, the U.K. aid department said. The Department for International Development (DFID), which has given funding for the trial due to start early next year, said the drone deliveries could assist more than 50,000 births a year in the East African country. The drones will be able to carry up to 1 kg (2 pounds) of medical supplies and reduce delivery times to 19 minutes from the 110 minutes it takes on average by vehicle. "The U.K. is at the forefront of investing in cutting-edge technology to tackle the global challenges of today such as disease pandemics, medical emergencies and disaster responses," said Priti Patel, U.K.'s international development secretary. "This innovative, modern approach ensures we are achieving the best results for the world's poorest people and delivering value for money for British taxpayers," she said in a statement Thursday.
Drone delivery is finally getting off the ground. And the action is happening in East Africa. Zipline, a pioneering drone startup that began delivering blood packs to Rwanda's remote hospitals in October 2016, today announced a major expansion into Tanzania. In early 2018 the company will begin flying its delivery drones to more than 1000 health care facilities around Tanzania, bringing urgently needed medicines and supplies to big hospitals and tiny rural clinics alike. Keller Rinaudo, founder and CEO of Zipline, says that "the richest companies in the world" are still trying to figure out how to make instant drone delivery work as a commercial service (as IEEE Spectrum has noted in it's coverage of Google's Project Wing and Amazon's Prime Air).