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Rwanda: Medical drones take off to save lives

Rwanda: Medical drones take off to save lives

Rwanda has launched the world’s first drone delivery service, which will transport medical supplies to remote communities in the country. Initially, the drones – also known as unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) – will transport blood to 21 transfusion centres in the western region of the country, but the programme will be expanded in the future to include vaccines. 

The drone service will make up to 150 deliveries of blood per day to cater for hard-to-reach communities in rural Rwanda. Postpartum haemorrhage – or blood loss – is the most common cause of death among pregnant women in Rwanda.  

Hospitals in rural areas struggle to store enough blood due to the lack of adequate refrigerators, and the transportation of medical supplies to some remote regions of the country is hindered by impassable terrain, especially during the rainy season. Speaking at the launch on Friday 14 October, President Paul Kagame highlighted the importance of using “cutting edge technology to bypass the challenges of existing modes of transport”.

“Drones are very useful, both commercially and for improving services in the health sector,” he said.” We are happy to be launching this innovative technology and to continue working with partners to develop it further.”

US-based Zipline, a robotics company, will operate the drone delivery system in partnership with United Parcel Service (UPS) and Global Alliance for Vaccines (Gavi). Zipline announced its partnership with the Rwandan government in April 2016, and has spent the last few months testing the system at a distribution centre in the central district of Muhanga.

The centre currently houses 15 custom-built drones, which can carry up to 1.5 kilogrammes of blood to a distance of up to 150 kilometres. Hospitals can order blood using text message and the lifesaving medical supply will be parachuted to the delivery location in around 15 minutes.

The drone delivery service will be expanded to the Eastern region of Rwanda in early 2017, which will put almost every one of the country’s 11 million citizens within reach of instant delivery of lifesaving medicines, according to a Zipline statement.

“The inability to deliver lifesaving medicines to the people who need them the most causes millions of preventable deaths each year around the world. Zipline will help solve that problem once and for all,” said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo. “We’ve built an instant delivery system for the world, allowing medicine to be delivered on-demand and at low-cost, anywhere.”

Taku Dzimwasha

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