Drones are commonly associated with with their ability to provide stunning aerial photographs and videography. People have enjoyed using them for selfies or taking pictures of their properties. Other uses have also been explored and span a variety of industries and applications such as helping with wildlife conservation efforts and assisting scientists with studies by attaching equipment like high-resolution cameras. While drones can be utilized in numerous ways, the use that has captured my attention is the quick transportation of medical supplies in Africa.
Commercial Drone Legislation in Africa
Recently, a few countries in Africa have been being highlighted for their open embrace of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology. Rwanda has helped to lead this charge and has adopted performance-based regulations for all drones.
“In performance-based regulation the government states this is our safety threshold and you companies tell us the combination of technologies and operational mitigations you’re going to use to meet it.” -Timothy Reuter, Civil Drones Project Head at the World Economic Forum.
“Rather than the government saying ‘you have to use this kind of technology to stop your drone,’ they would say, ‘your drone needs to be able to stop in so many seconds.’” -Lisa Ellsman
This form of regulation has allowed for drone operators to aim for performance targets instead of being confined to specific technologies that must comply with any number of stipulations. South Africa and Malawi have also made progress on commercial drone legislation. South Africa passed laws to train and license pilots while Malawi opened a Drone Test Corridor. Additionally, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania have also shown interest in drones by issuing or updating drone regulations and announcing future UAV initiatives.
Drone Delivery Startup
The San Francisco startup Zipline has been a catalyst for many of the advances Rwanda is making in drone regulations. Zipline uses drones to quickly deliver medical supplies to people at a low cost. Given the country’s poor infrastructure, the use of drones marks a massive improvement in delivery logistics as they eliminate the need for drivers to navigate the rugged landscape and roads and bridges in a state of disrepair.
“Billions of people on earth lack access to critical medicine. In East Africa, Zipline’s drones bring people the medicine they need, when they need it in a way that reduces waste, cost and inventory while increasing access and saving lives. We’ve been hard at work to improve our technology and are ready to help save lives in America and around the world.” -Keller Rinaudo, Zipline CEO
The idea attracted a renown list of investors including Sequoia Capital, Katalyst Ventures, a16z, Google Ventures, SV Angel, Subtraction Capital, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and Stanford University. According to Crunchbase, the company has already raised $41.1 million throughout its ten rounds of funding. The large amount of funding has allowed the company to open two distribution centers in California and another in Rwanda.
How Zipline Works
Zipline has developed a simple and quick delivery process that enables it to deliver medicine to “the world’s most difficult to reach places.” In order to receive supplies, one can simply place an order via text message. Once the message has been received, someone will package the desired supplies and prepare the order for launch. The drones travel at over 100km/hr and allow for direct delivery in under thirty minutes. Once the drone has reached the destination, the supplies are then accurately parachuted to the ground, and hospital staff receive a text to alert them that the delivery has been made.
Zipline began the “world’s first drone delivery operation” in Rwanda in October of 2016. The company worked closely with the government of Rwanda in an effort to build a distribution center that can store 15 drones that transport blood, plasma, and platelets to twenty-one different hospitals throughout the western half of the country. Since the service was launched, Zipline has made huge progress including flying over 300,000km and delivering 7,000 units of blood across 4,000 flights. Additionally, about a third of these flights have been in response to emergency life-saving situations.
The impact has been widespread and now Zipline delivers more than 20% of Rwanda’s blood supply outside of Kigali, the country’s capital. Transportation used to be difficult, but with the use of drones, hospitals have rapid and continuous access to blood products. This accessibility has led to an increase in “the use of some blood products by 175% and reducing waste and spoilage by over 95%.” Due to the success of the first distribution center, Zipline is currently in the midst of opening a second second distribution center in Rwanda that will put the entire country within the company’s delivery range. Additionally, Zipline plans to expand into Tanzania where it is anticipating making up to “up to 2,000 life-saving deliveries per day to over one thousand health facilities and serving 10 million people across the country.”
Current African Drone Initiatives
The exciting new possibilities that have been opened by drone technology have led some African country governments to encourage innovation. The Government of Malawi has entered into a partnership with UNICEF in order to provide people the opportunity to participate in their humanitarian drone test corridor. They are currently accepting applications for people to “test a potential use case in the main areas of Imagery, Connectivity and Transport to improve the lives of Malawi’s children!” Additionally, there is the Lake Victoria Challenge which gives “drone innovators” the chance to compete in “a series of real-world scenarios” such as picking up and delivering a medical package using electric vertical take-off and landing platform. Prizes for the competition will include things like demonstration contracts or service related to local customers.
I believe there is abundant potential for drones to disrupt a variety of industries – especially shipping. As technologies continue to improve, I am excited to watch more drone centered initiatives emerge in various industries.