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HomeAfricaRwanda's life-saving drones expand into Tanzania to serve 12m people

Rwanda's life-saving drones expand into Tanzania to serve 12m people

ZiplineThe world’s first national drone delivery network, started in Rwanda by the Silicon Valley company Zipline, is now opening in Tanzania, serving 1,000 clinics and 12m people.

For most in the Western world, it is a routine if traumatic event that staff are equipped to deal with day in, day out. But, says a report in The Daily Telegraph, for a young woman in Rwanda, a sudden bleed after going into labour could easily have proved fatal. There was no blood of the right group in store at the remote rural clinic looking after Alice Mutimiutugye when she needed her life-saving transfusion.

The report says until recently the prospects for her would have been bleak. But on this occasion, salvation arrived in the nick of time in an unlikely form: A small package floating on a paper parachute dropped from a 25lb, battery-powered drone. It had flown in from 50 miles away just half an hour after Alice’s doctors placed an order by text.

The report says Mutimiutugye, 23, from Nyange, west of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, is at the forefront of a technology-driven health revolution being pioneered in Africa that is now set to help patients in the developed West. The unmanned aircraft is part of the world’s first national drone delivery network, started in Rwanda by the Silicon Valley company Zipline, which has made more than 950 drops of blood in life-or-death situations in the past year.

Instead of a desperate struggle to save Mutimiutugye's life, the report says, her condition stabilised and she soon went home with a healthy baby son. “I used to see the Zipline drone fly and people gathering around to watch,” she said. “I would find it funny and think to myself ‘they must be mad’ until the same drone brought the blood that saved my life.”

In the crowded skies of western countries, drone services have struggled to get off the ground. The report says the reality has failed to match the PR hype of the occasional pre-Christmas trinket delivery by the likes of Amazon. Instead, drones are taking off in the far quieter skies of Africa.

In the next few months, Zipline will open a new service in Tanzania that within a year will be serving 1,000 clinics and 12m people with a new model of unmanned aircraft that will be the world’s fastest delivery drone.

In countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe, rangers use drones equipped with night-vision cameras to track poachers and guide in security teams to capture them. In Cameroon a local start-up is providing aerial mapping and imaging services to businesses and government. And farmers in Sudan are using them to sow seed.

The report says drone delivery pioneers have found African countries quick to embrace the new technology and realise that it is about far more than American Predator craft firing Hellfire missiles at terrorists. “People there are much more open-minded about the way technology can improve lives,” said Keller Rinaudo, co-founder and CEO of Zipline, who is frustrated by the attitude of many western countries. “Given how much talk and how little walk there has been (in the West), I think people are justifiably sceptical. The general paradigm people use is that advanced technology in robotics will start in the US or Japan and trickle its way down to developing economies. What’s happening right now with these services in Africa is upending that. It's showing that small countries can move much faster in seizing the benefits of disruptive technology.”

Rinaudo, a former Harvard University biotechnology scientist and professional rock-climber, set up Zipline with his co-founder Keenan Wyrobek in 2011. One of the company’s major funders has been Scott Hassan, a technology billionaire and one of the brains behind Google’s original codes. Its staff includes veterans of Google, Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

The report says it took five years work before Zipline got to the point of opening in Rwanda in 2016. The company’s founders developed the technology after visiting clinics in rugged parts of central America and Africa only accessible by dirt roads that turn to mud in the rainy season. Doctors there knew how to save lives, but the problem was getting the right medical supplies at the right time. They were having to decide months ahead what they needed to keep in stock, but then instantly deal with emergencies they could not predict. Some did not even have reliable electricity to power a refrigerator.

Meanwhile, Rinaudo and Wyrobek were coming across medicines heaped two storeys high outside warehouses that had expired because there was no way of delivering them where people needed them.

The breakthrough came when they met Zac Mletema, a graduate student at the Ikafara Health Institute in Tanzania. He had invented a mobile phone alerting system for rural clinics to text orders to a central database. The problem was that there was no way for the clinics to get these supplies reliably in an emergency.

The report says Mletema’s system combined with the potential of drones gave birth to the Zipline system. Doctors send in their orders by text or WhatsApp message to a central base, where the medical supplies are kept in a state-of-the-art storage facility. Staff pack the blood into a padded box tethered to a parachute and pass it to the flight operator, who fixes it to the drone, known as a Zip.

A catapult fires the Zip into the sky from a metal rail and it uses military-grade GPS navigation to fly along a pre-programmed route at up to 75mph, with Rwandan air traffic control informed of its flight path. It flies below 500ft to avoid interfering with other aircraft. The Zip needs no facilities at the drop zone except a clear area the size of two parking spaces. It knows its location to within 1cm.

A WhatsApp message alerts the doctor just before the Zip arrives. The craft spirals down to an altitude of about 20ft, using onboard sensors to measure the wind and judge the right speed and direction for the final approach before releasing its load.

Once it gets back to base, the Zip lowers a hook that catches a wire, pulling it down to earth on an inflatable landing pad in a technique Zipline calls “aircraft carrier meets bouncy castle”.

The report says the impressive sight of a drone on a mission is only a small part of the work that goes into making the whole system work and turns it into a valuable piece of intellectual property. “90% of the really difficult work is in the software and operations,” said Rinaudo. “At a national scale where millions of people’s lives can rely on them, operating them in any weather is really complicated.

“We designed our flight computer from scratch, we write all the flight control algorithms and communications architecture, we designed and manufactured the aircraft.

“The integration with the community and the people side of things are important. We need to see doctors, set up ordering systems that work well and that people can rely on when there. We have to survey and programme routes. Our customers don’t give a damn about drones. All they care about is does a product go from Point A to Point B fast enough to save a patient’s life.”

The drones are continually upgraded – the report says originally they were only able to fly in good weather, but Zipline toughened them up when doctors told them that in an emergency their patients could not wait for storms to clear. The company found fixed-wing craft sturdier in bad weather than the more familiar rotocopter design.

The new generation of Zips that will be introduced in Tanzania will fly further faster and with a heavier payload than the 3.3lb packages the current drones are limited to. Even that size, though it sounds small, is enough for more than 100 vaccines or up to five units of blood. In one recent case, a series of drones shuttled in blood units rapidly to save a young mother’s life after a C-section when a single batch was not enough.

The report says so far, the 15 Zips in Rwanda have flown more than 200,000 miles, delivering 7,000 units of blood in 7,500 on-demand flights. A second base due to be opened this year will extend coverage across the whole country using an extra 30-35 drones.

Zipline’s network in Tanzania will reflect the far larger size of the country. Four bases will each by equipped with about 30 craft capable of making around 500 flights a day. The Zips are also moving beyond their original cargo of blood. In future they will transport supplies such as vaccines, HIV medicine, IV tubes, sutures, snake antivenom and drugs for rabies, which in Tanzania currently kills around 2,000 people a year, mainly children.

The report says Zipline is cooperating with the Rwandan and Tanzanian governments to put in place rapid-response plans to deal with disease outbreaks as soon as they are detected. Rinaudo believes flying medicine instantly to remote areas in these situations will not just save lives but lower the risk of highly contagious diseases like Ebola running out of control. At the same time, early intervention saves scarce financial resources. “If you can stop an outbreak in the first week, it costs maybe 100th of what it costs once it has spread,” he said.

Rwanda is building on its worldwide lead. In January, the country announced a deal with the World Economic Forum and the Fourth Industrial Revolution Centre in California to produce the world’s first regulatory framework that will integrate safe drone-operating protocols fully into a national legal and air traffic control system.

The report says the West may slowly be catching up. Five projects are underway in Britain to trial delivery of parcels, medical supplies and organs for transplant. The government has promised a drones bill in the spring that could pave the way for their wider use. Already, farmers are using unmanned craft to monitor crops and the Environment Agency has been able to follow the spread of floods in real time.

In the US, the federal administration is expected to give the go-ahead by April for city and state governments to experiment with drone projects. Zipline is working on a trial in conjunction with the Department of Transportation after the Rwandan operation caught the attention of US officials. By the end of this year, the company hopes to start flying to rural backwaters hours by road from the nearest hospital. Many of these areas are now seeing life expectancy falling for the first time since records began due in part to their local medical facilities closing.

For now, Zipline is staying focused on the business of medical deliveries and saving lives. As Mutimiutugye said: “My prayer is that everyone who needs it gets it just like I did. I feel blessed that I received that blood.”

[link url=""]The Daily Telegraph report[/link]

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