Blood-by-drone lifeline takes off in Rwanda
"THREE, two, one, launch!" And with that, catapulted from a ramp, the small fixed-wing drone buzzes into the air towards its pre-programmed destination, the Kabgayi hospital 2km away.
Last week, the African nation of Rwanda inaugurated a drone operation that its backers hope will kickstart a revolution in the supply of medical care in rural parts of Africa, by delivering blood to 21 clinics in the west of the country.
Maternal mortality rates in Africa are among the highest in the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), largely due to postpartum haemorrhage caused by lack of access to simple blood transfusions.
Rwanda is no exception, and the situation is worsened by the topography of a country dubbed "the land of a thousand hills" as well as intense seasonal rains making the transport of blood by road often long and difficult.
Blood "is a very precious commodity so you cannot just stock a lot of it in every single heath centre", said Keller Rinaudo, CEO of Zipline, a California-based robotics company that designed the 15 drones and the base housing them in Muhanga, 50km west of the capital Kigali.
He hopes the system will "allow the Rwandan government to instantly deliver life-saving transfusions to any citizen in the country in 15 to 30 minutes".
American package-delivery giant UPS and global vaccine alliance Gavi have invested US$1.1 million (S$1.5 million) in the Zipline project, one of a handful on the continent seeking to harness the potential of delivery drones to overcome poor infrastructure.
The battery-powered drones have a range of around 150km and can carry about 1.5kg, or three bags of blood.
Flying at up to 70kmh, it is predicted each drone could make as many as 150 deliveries a day.