Global Citizen is a community of people like you

People who want to learn about and take action on the world’s biggest challenges. Extreme poverty ends with you.

Finance & Innovation

How drones in Rwanda will save lives, not take them

@NOIweala via Twitter

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the use of drones — drones to drop bombs, drones to drop packages, drones to drop in on your neighbors.

But Zipline, a San Francisco-based startup, is hoping to change that by using drones to drop blood and other life-saving medical supplies to hospitals in remote areas of Rwanda. Dissatisfied with the existing drones on the market, Zipline designed its own drone, which resembles a tiny airplane and can carry up to 1.5kg over a distance of more than 120 km with just one charge. The Zip, as it’s named, has the capacity to travel at 100 km per hour, while accurately parachuting packages to targeted locations.

Rwanda is known as the “land of a thousand hills” and its topography and lack of infrastructure can present challenges to those trying to quickly deliver medical aid, but Zipline’s two strategically placed bases are able to reach 21 rural clinics in the country within 15 to 45 minutes. The drones can withstand tough weather conditions because “people do not wait for perfect weather to get sick or to have medical emergencies…[they have] to be able to operate all the time,” says Zipline’s founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo.

Clinics can place orders for blood via text message. Drones will then use GPS to locate the drop site. Each with a fleet of 15 Zips, these bases will be able to conduct 150 flights to these clinics every day.

In partnership with the Rwandan government, Zipline will start flying its drones and delivering blood this summer. The company hopes to reduce maternal and child mortality by making safe blood supplies accessible. More than 300,000 women die each year from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes, and over half of these occur in Sub-Saharan Africa. But the leading causes of maternal mortality — severe bleeding, infections post-childbirth, delivery complications — are often treatable with access to safe blood supplies.

Zipline eventually hopes to expand its operations to include timely deliveries of vaccines for malaria and HIV/AIDS as well as other medical supplies to remote areas.

If it succeeds, Zipline could pave the way for other aid organizations to employ this sort of technology and shift people’s perception of drones from harmful to helpful.