A recent critical report into the civilian use of drones in the US came to the damning conclusion that restrictions were so stringent they were actually stifling the commercial development of this fledgling industry.

Yet, thousands of miles away, some of the world’s poorest countries have embraced this technology, and in doing so have not only spawned a new market – drones for development – but are also helping boost the industry by stimulating innovation.

The needs of humanitarian organizations, such as my own, to find technological solutions capable of leapfrogging ageing or antiquated infrastructure in poverty-stricken countries has helped to drive this. From monitoring the movement of displaced and vulnerable populations or carrying out search-and-rescue missions in disaster zones; to delivering medical supplies to remote communities, drones now help to improve the lives of millions of the world’s poorest people.

This technology has to operate under challenging conditions and the constraints of finding business models that suit the needs of cash-strapped governments or aid agencies. While we desperately need this technology to fight poverty and achieve our development and global health goals, there is also a growing sense that these challenges can help spur technological innovation and act as crucial a testing ground for the industry.

A good example of this is vaccine delivery, where this reciprocal relationship has the potential to be a real game changer. Organizations such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, are keen to find new ways to improve access to vaccines in remote settings in low-income countries as part of a mission to ensure that no child goes without protection from vaccine-preventable disease. But, given the variety of different settings within which we and partners such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF work, one size is unlikely to fit all. Different solutions are needed.

Initially, our interest in drones lay in their potential to deliver vaccines whose use was unpredictable but critical in their timing, like for rabies. If you get bitten by a rabid animal, you will die unless you receive a vaccination but the vaccine is expensive and difficult to stock in all locations. The same would be true for snake antivenom or blood in the case of obstetrical haemorrhage. To this end, we became a partner in what became the world’s first national autonomous drone delivery service in Rwanda. To make this possible, rather than use a fleet of existing drones, Californian start-up Zipline chose to innovate by creating their own.

A drone is placed on a launch pad at operations center in Muhanda, south of Rwanda's capital Kigali where Zipline, a California-based robotics company delivered their first blood to patients using a drone October 12, 2016. Picture taken October 12, 2016. REUTERS/James Akena - D1BEUHXHQCAA
A Zipline blood-delivery drone on its launch pad at an operations centre in Muhanda, south of Kigali, Rwanda
Image: REUTERS/James Akena

What we needed was something with the range and payload advantages of a fixed-wing design, but that, in a country as hilly as Rwanda, had the advantage of not needing runways, like rotor-based craft which can land vertically. Zipline’s solution was a fixed-wing design that is shot into the air by a mechanical catapult. It then flies to its destination and delivers its payload from the air by a disposable paper parachute, before returning to base, where it is caught in mid-air by a purpose-built rig. It can then have its rechargeable battery swapped and is ready to return to the skies for another delivery.

It’s an unusual set-up but it works. So much so that, after the opening of a second distribution centre this week, 100% of medical blood supplies in rural Rwanda and, when needed, emergency vaccines will be delivered by autonomous drone.

But while this works for certain types of delivery, it has its limitations. For example, further down the line, we would like to use drones during outbreak situations, which means not just delivering medical supplies but collecting and transporting diagnostic samples from remote regions to medical laboratories. For this, we would clearly need drones with landing capabilities.

One novel hybrid solution, already being tested by the government’s Medical Stores Department in Tanzania, is the Wingcopter. Capable of taking off and landing like a rotor-based aircraft, these have both a fixed-wing and rotors that can pivot forward like propellers when cruising. With funding from the German development agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) this is being tested as part of the Drone X project to deliver medical supplies to and from Ukerewe Island, where deliveries are normally at the mercy of infrequent ferries.

Similarly, as drone capabilities improve, we also get closer to the prospect of using them as a primary method for restocking all supplies of vaccines. This may not always be appropriate, but in some cases, it would reduce the need for a cold chain, a network of refrigeration units along the supply chain that is needed to keep vaccines at an optimal temperature. For this, and for countries larger than Rwanda, it is likely we will need drones capable of carrying even larger payloads over much greater distances.

In response to this need, new contenders are entering the market, such as UK-based UAVAID. While most drones in this sector can typically carry up to a few kilograms, these drones have larger wingspans and payload capabilities of 10 kilograms or more.

In contrast, an urban setting will have a completely different set of requirements. In Nigeria’s capital, Lagos, for example, the traffic is so notoriously bad the government is now looking at using drones as a delivery solution. In such a scenario, where obstacle avoidance and precise movement is more important, it may be more appropriate to use rotor-based drones, instead of ones with wings.

But it’s not just about getting the right technology for the job, the business model has to be right too. In Rwanda, drones make it possible to cut delivery times from four hours to just 20 minutes. When a mother is haemorrhaging during childbirth, for example, this can mean the difference between life and death. For the government of Rwanda, preventing these kinds of deaths is equally as important as the total cost of delivery.

This is one reason why Gavi has teamed up with the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in California, to help developing countries find the most appropriate technology and ways to scale these projects. This will become increasingly important in the coming years because as Zipline looks to expand in other countries such as Ghana and Nigeria, it will face increasing competition. In anticipation of this Zipline recently launched a new drone capable of carrying heavier payloads and travelling greater distances. In other words, it continues to innovate.