What is claimed to be the world's first national drone delivery service has launched in Rwanda. Operated by US robotics firm Zipline in partnership with the Rwandan government, the service makes emergency deliveries of blood from a distribution hub to transfusion facilities up to 75 km (47 mi) away.

Plans for the service were first announced early this year, with details about how it was to operate subsequently released in May. In a country where postpartum hemorrhaging is the leading cause of death for pregnant women and it is difficult for clinics to keep different blood types on hand and stored safely, drones are seen as tools that can deliver blood to remote areas quickly without needing to navigate hilly landscapes and difficult roads.

A fleet of 15 autonomous drones known as "Zips" is used to make the deliveries, each capable of traveling 150 km (93 mi) and carrying 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) of blood per trip. Emergency orders for blood are placed via text message and the required product is loaded into a drone at the distribution center in the country's Muhanga region.

When the drone reaches its destination, its payload is released over a predetermined area, or "mailbox," and is parachuted down to the ground. A text message is sent to the intended recipient shortly before the drone reaches the destination so that they can be ready to collect the blood when it lands. Delivery complete, the drone then returns to the distribution center.

The drones, which can fly in both wind and rain, are able to make up to 150 deliveries a day to 21 transfusion facilities in the western half of Rwanda and can fulfil orders within about 30 minutes. The team says it expects the drones to save thousands of lives over the next three years.

Although the service is initially only delivering blood, other payloads such as medicine and vaccines are expected to be added by way of a partnership with UPS, Gavi and the Vaccine Alliance. Zipline also plans to expand the service to the eastern half of Rwanda next year, putting almost the entire population of the country within range, and to eventually to roll out similar services to other places around the world. The service was launched yesterday by Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Source: Zipline, UPS

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