How drones are making history and saving lives

When Claudine Ndayishime suffered complications during her cesarean section, doctors at a Rwandan hospital lacked blood to treat her and she fell into a coma. Before long a tiny robotic airplane designed by the California startup Zipline dropped a padded package of blood that doctors used to save her life.

“It was because of Zipline that I was able to regain consciousness,” Ndayishime said. “They delivered the blood in a few minutes.”

Since partnering with Rwanda in October 2016, Zipline said, it has flown more than 500 emergency deliveries. Locals have dubbed the company’s drones “sky ambulances.”

Flights like the one that supplied blood for Ndayishime’s transfusion are highlighting the value of drones for delivering medical supplies to isolated, hard-to-reach regions. In December, the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu completed a first-ever drone delivery of vaccines to a remote area.

Two people walking through forest on coastline (© UNICEF Pacific)
A midwife and her assistant hike along the coastline of Epi Island, Vanuatu. Drones could eliminate journeys like these. (© UNICEF Pacific)

Vanuatu’s drone program uses Australian-made drones and receives support from the Global Fund to Fight HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria, supported in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. government.

Zipline has announced plans for drone flights in Tanzania and Ghana. It said those deliveries will include blood, vaccines, and anti-malarial and HIV medicines.

Other U.S. companies also are using drones and other new technologies to help expand medical treatment. Matternet, of Menlo Park, California, supplied drones to test deliveries of blood samples for HIV testing in Malawi.

And Nexleaf Analytics, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles, is supporting the international organization Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, in its mission to vaccinate children in developing countries. Nexleaf designs affordable technologies to ensure vaccines are stored at cool temperatures and remain viable.

Children watching drone take off (© Bodele/UNICEF)
Children in Malawi’s capital of Lilongwe watch a drone being tested to improve delivery of health care services in the country. (© Bodele/UNICEF)

Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which seeks to promote economic growth worldwide, recently touted Zipline’s drone deliveries of blood and medical supplies in Rwanda as emblematic of how new technologies can tackle Africa’s challenges while creating local jobs.

“Sub-Saharan Africa successfully harnesses new technologies and creates an emerging, vibrant middle class,” Lagarde told a December IMF conference in Ghana’s capital of Accra.

But for Alice Mutimutuje, a Rwandan mother who needed a transfusion when hospitalized for malaria, drones’ speedy delivery of medical supplies is most important. “I used to see the drones fly and think ‘they must be mad,’ until the same drone brought me blood and saved my life,” she said.

This article was written by freelance writer David Reynolds.