Drones are supplying blood to a network of 21 remotely located transfusion clinics in Rwanda, helping save lives every day across the country.

Flying in a straight line, and at high speeds, the drones can drop off the much-needed blood in minutes to destinations that otherwise would have taken many hours to reach. They now carry more than 35% of Rwanda’s national blood transfusion service supply – outside of the capital.

Clinics can request a blood delivery from a central storage facility via text or WhatsApp message. The correct type and amount of blood is then carefully packaged and loaded into one of the Zipline drones, a company co-founded by Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur Keller Rinaudo.

The fixed-wing drones are shot into the air via a large catapult, which can propel them from 0-70 mph in one-quarter of a second. Once there, they are powered by lithium-ion battery packs and twin electric motors, and follow a pre-defined route. They can cover a maximum round-trip of 160 kilometres.

Keenan Wyrobek, head of product engineering at Zipline International, displays a package of fake blood airdropped by a Zipline drone during a flight demonstration at an undisclosed location in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, U.S., May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam - S1AETDANIRAB
Image: REUTERS/Stephen Lam

When they reach their destination they drop their precious cargo, which parachutes safely to the ground while the drone stays airborne and returns to base.

Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, has a population of 860,000. But there are hardly any other major towns or cities in the country. The second largest city, Butare, has a population of only around 90,000: the majority of Rwanda’s 12.6 million people live in rural communities. This can mean they are a long way from specialist medical help in the event of an emergency.

“Postpartum haemorrhage is the leading cause of maternal deaths in Rwanda,” says Dr Diane Gashumba, Minister of Health. “Every second you gain in saving life is critical.”

Claudine Ndayishime is one patient who has been helped by the drone blood service. Following a complication during her C-section, Claudine slipped into a coma as the hospital did not have her blood type in stock. However, a blood delivery arrived within minutes via drone, and she made a full recovery.

It’s not only in Rwanda where postpartum haemorrhage is a major threat to women’s lives. It is the leading cause of maternal mortality in the world. According to the World Health Organization, more than 800 women die each day from preventable childbirth and pregnancy-related issues. Of those, 99% occur in developing countries.

Image: UNICEF

Although maternal mortality rates worldwide fell by around 44% between 1990 and 2015, there are some surprising anomalies where the downward trend is being resisted – for example, American women are 50% more likely to die in childbirth than women of their mothers' generation.

Malaria is another major threat to life in Rwanda and often requires urgent blood transfusions. Emerence Uwamwezi’s seven-month-old daughter, Noella, was diagnosed with malaria, which led to severe anaemia. The Zipline delivery service saved her life, too.

The rural distribution of much of Rwanda’s population is one factor that can make road-based delivery of medical supplies time-consuming. But it is further complicated by the country’s infrastructure and climate. While there are around 4,700 kilometers of roads in Rwanda, only 25% are paved or surfaced. Consequently, much of the country’s road network is susceptible to flooding, blocking, or erosion during late spring when torrential rain is more likely.

The Rwandan health ministry is aiming to connect all 12 million of its citizens to essential medical supplies within 30 minutes.