How Rwanda is using drones to save millions of lives

Rohini Nambiar | CNBC
Drones are the new way to deliver emergency aid

The fight against life-threatening diseases in one of the world's poorest nations could get a boost from an unlikely avenue: Drones.

Zipline, a robotics company based in Silicon Valley, is working with the Rwandan government to deliver essential medical supplies through the use of drones to previously inaccessible areas.

Doctors can place their request for medical supplies through a text message and the supplies are dispatched from a hub, located next to a medical warehouse facility, to remote regions within minutes. Each battery-powered drone, named the Zip, is able to carry up to 1.5kg of medical supplies and can fly a distance of more than 120km. The Zip operates through a slingshot mechanism and the supplies are dropped at their destination using a parachute.

Zipline's project with the Rwandan government is set to launch in July this year to deliver blood supplies across the country. The use of drones to deliver essential medical supplies is expected to reduce the delivery time from 15 hours to 15 minutes, according to Zipline. The company is also working with partners UPS and GAVI on the possibility of speeding up the project's expansion into the delivery of medicines.

Source: Zipline

The somewhat unconventional response might be particularly suited for Rwanda, which has been dubbed the "Land of Thousand Hills" for its rough terrain.

The East African nation is one of the world's poorest nations and the lack of access to healthcare resources continues to be a pressing issue. Annually, millions of lives are lost from HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and childbirth which can be prevented with access to fresh medical supplies.

Zipline's 29-year old founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo set his sights on East Africa following a visit to Tanzania in 2014 and identified the urgent need for a more efficient supply chain network to deliver medical supplies.

Rinaudo told CNBC's "The Rundown"; "Rwanda is interesting; it is kind of a startup country. It is still one of the poorest countries of the world, but it is run by an incredibly innovative and technology-focused government that is willing to make big bets on the future."

The company also has some high-profile backers since it was founded in 2014. Zipline has received more than $18million in investments from Sequoia Capital, Google Ventures, SV Angel, Subtraction Capital, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Stanford University.

The DeepFlight Dragon, the $1.5 million submarine modeled after a drone.
The $1.5 million submarine that's modeled after a drone

The project in Rwanda is part of a broader trend of drones gaining mainstream acceptance from their early applications in the armed forces.

Many companies have begun exploring the possibility of using drones for deliveries. Amazon unveiled its plans to use drones for package deliveries through "Amazon Prime Air" earlier this year and Google is expected to launch its Project Wing, for package deliveries, next year. Yet, regulatory hurdles in the US and many developed countries have stalled the adoption of drones for commercial purposes. This puts developing countries like Rwanda at the center for the adoption of such cutting-edge technology.

The monetary costs for the use of drones remain high, but Zipline's Rinaudo is confident that the delivery cost will decrease exponentially as the company scales up.

Zipline plans to expand its efforts to the rest of Africa in the latter half of 2016.

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This report has been updated to reflect that the Rwandan project is not a pilot and that Zipline's partnership with UPS and Gavi is not connected to blood delivery.