The world’s first commercial drone delivery service operates from a hill almost smack dab in the middle of Rwanda. A barbed wire fence surrounds a field, a white tent, and a control tower. From here, Zipline, a San Francisco-based robotics company, delivers blood by drone to almost half of all Rwanda’s blood transfusion centers. Orders are made online, by text, phone, or WhatsApp. A technician sits in a refrigerated room where the blood—specifically red blood cells, platelets, plasma, and cryoprecipitate—are stored, communicating with his team over Slack. An order has come in for a hospital about two hours away by car. The drone delivers the package in 20 minutes.
“To have a proven model here first in Rwanda is amazing,” says Maggie Jim, who manages global operations and communications for Zipline. She says the company is talking with other governments in Africa, including Tanzania’s, as well as in Latin America about launching drones services there.
That African countries are emerging as a test bed for new ideas that Western countries—bogged down by strict regulations or antiquated systems—are too slow to try has become something of a popular narrative. Foreign investors and companies are still wary of setting up on the continent while local startups, especially those outside of Nigeria, South Africa, or Kenya, struggle to get funding.
Drones are one area where African countries are proving more accepting and innovative. The commercial drone industry has been slow to start in most other parts of the world. The United States prohibits drone flights that leave the line of sight of a human pilot. In contrast, African countries like Rwanda, Cameroon, Malawi, South Africa, and Kenya are increasingly open to the use of drones in tourism, health services, and e-commerce.
Kenya recently said it would allow the commercial use of drones. In Malawi, drones have been deployed to transfer HIV tests to and from rural parts of Malawi. Elsewhere they’re being used to combat poaching or to augment safaris. A Cameroonian start up named Will & Brothers recently raised $200,000 to begin assembling and producing within the country parts for drones. In Rwanda, another drone company has plans to build what would be the world’s first civilian “drone port” for commercial deliveries and ferrying health supplies.
A Morocco-based startup Atlan Space has developed software to use drones for monitoring illegal maritime activity (video) like illegal fishing or oil spills. Ugandan authorities have also been open-minded, according to Moses Gichanga, founder of Autonomous Systems Research, a Kenya-based tech consultancy. With consent from the country’s aviation regulator and local authorities, his company has been doing aerial drone tests in the Uganda’s eastern districts as well as in Malawi.
“There are countless use cases for Africa,” says Gichanga, listing agriculture, mineral exploration, security surveillance, and conservation as some of the top areas where drones could be deployed on the continent.
Drone deliveries make sense especially in countries with poor roads and disconnected communities. During the rainy season, many of Rwanda’s roads are wiped out and getting health services in an emergency can take hours because of the country’s hilly terrain. Mapping and deliveries would also be useful for quickly expanding African cities. By 2050, as much as a quarter of the world’s population will be living in Africa, more than half of them in cities.
“If we think about Africa in 2050, it won’t be the same story. More people, more security needs, more urbanization, more connectivity [mean] more need of accurate data for maps,” says William Elong, who founded Will & Brothers, which already uses drones for agricultural surveys. Elong says the company has been getting more requests for their drone services in e-commerce and healthcare.
Elong and Gichanga both cite Rwanda as an example of the continent’s increasing openness to drone technology. At Zipline’s operation in Muhanga, a few hours south of Kigali, the drones sit in rows on a wall. More like small airplanes than quadcopters, they fly at 100 km an hour, about 60 miles per hour, and can reach any clinic or hospital within 75 kilometers.
The drones follow predetermined routes that trace the ups and downs of Rwanda’s terrain. Instead of landing, the drones drop the package at the hospital, in a biodegradable paper box attached to a parachute, and then return to Zipline’s headquarters.
But even in a country like Rwanda where technology has been a core part of the government’s plans for growth, it’s not clear that drones have the most effective impact on its healthcare improvements. Rwanda has expanded access to healthcare across the country and dramatically improved maternal mortality rates, but is still dealing with a shortage of health workers. The country has 0.06 doctors per 1,000 people (pdf), well below the World Health Organization’s recommended rate of 2.5 health workers per 1,000 people. In 2011, there were nine anesthesiologists and 17 surgeons serving a population of more than 10 million.
Zipline and the government won’t disclose the costs of the service. Jim says that the healthcare system overall will save money by reducing waste and inventory costs.
In a country with a government known for keeping an eye on its citizens—and accused of disappearing rivals and critics—Zipline has also had to earn the trust of the communities their drones fly in. The team introduced themselves at town hall-like events, showing the residents photos of the drones and assuring them that they are solely for delivery. The only time cameras are installed on the drones is during test flights to map out routes. ”We want to make sure that every citizen in Rwanda understands what it means when a drone flies over them,” says Jim.