Drones Now Delivering Life-Saving Blood in Rwanda

A fleet of 15 drones located in Rwanda's Muhanga District have come online to fly packages of blood to 21 transfusing facilities.

In Africa, about 850 women die every day during pregnancy or childbirth. Part of the problem is that many women give birth at home, far from a hospital or clinic. But even those who give birth under the care of doctors and nurses are at risk due to the lack of basic medical equipment, medicine and blood for transfusions. In Rwanda, the East African country of more than 11 million people, postpartum hemorrhaging is the leading cause of maternal death.

But drones are on deck to deliver the one thing that can prevent these deaths: blood.

Zipline, a California-based robotics company, has partnered with UPS, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Rwandan government to launch the country's first drone delivery service. As of today, a fleet of 15 drones located in the Muhanga District have come online to fly packages of blood to 21 transfusing facilities. Each craft can carry a cargo upwards of 3 1/2 pounds and because the drone port is centrally located amid the facilities, it's no more than 30 minutes away from saving a life.

Although drone deliveries are still trying to make airtime in the United States, they were given the green light in Rwanda because the airspace is practically wide-open and the need for saving lives is great. According to the World Health Organization, 325 pregnant women per 100,000 die every year, many from hemorrhaging.

But having blood on hand to treat the condition is difficult. Blood spoils easily and transporting it even short distances can be incredibly challenging in a country where a rainstorm can wash out a road.

With the drones in place, a medic needs only the related app. She makes a request for blood, which is received by the computer at home base. An attendant there packages the blood, loads it into the drone and launches it into the air. The flight controls are management via the app at the home base. When the drone approaches the transfusing facility, it releases the package, which floats to the earth by parachute. Eventually, the drones will carry other life-saving cargo like vaccines.

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For the first phase of this national drone delivery initiate, the drone port and transfusing stations targeted will be located in the western part of the country, away from Kigali International Airport, which lies to the east. But in time, Zipline hopes to expand to the entire country as well as across Africa and the Americas. In fact, Zipline could be offering similar services on Indian Reservations in the United States.

"We've built an instant delivery system for the world, allowing medicine to be delivered on-demand and at low-cost, anywhere," said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo in a press release.

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