What began six years ago as a small pilot program using drones to deliver blood in remote areas of Rwanda has now evolved into a first-of-its-kind nationwide drone delivery network.
On Thursday, Bay Area-based drone delivery firm Zipline and the government of Rwanda announced a new partnership that will grant the company medical delivery service access to every single resident and household in the country.
The new partnership will triple Rwanda’s drone delivery volume by adding new delivery sites nationwide and opening up Zipline’s service to other government entities. Ultimately, the two parties hope to complete 2 million deliveries and fly 200 million kilometers in Rwanda by 2029.
“With this new agreement, we will be incorporating Zipline into many aspects of our national operations from providing a reliable health care supply chain, to addressing malnutrition, to creating an unforgettable ecotourism experience,” said Clare Akamanzi, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board. “Rwanda is an innovation hub and we’re thrilled to be the first country in the world to launch a national drone delivery service.”
Backing up Akamanzi’s assertion is the fact that Zipline was flying in Rwanda as early as 2016, well before most countries saw their first delivery drones take flight. It’s one of several sub-Saharan African nations to embrace such technologies, which contrasts with the slower, more regulation-heavy approach of a country like the U.S.
Initially, Zipline only delivered blood samples. But over the years, it added other items like medicines, vaccines, nutrition and animal health products, and other medical supplies. Today, the firm delivers three-quarters of the nation’s blood supply outside its capital and largest city, Kigali, and works with over 400 hospitals and clinics.
Now, though, any Rwandan government agency — from the Ministry of Agriculture to the National Child Development Agency — can use Zipline’s system to make instant deliveries.
Watch: Humanitarian Drone Deliveries
“Instant logistics has saved thousands of lives and is solving some of the world’s most important problems — hunger and malnutrition, road congestion and environmental pollution, and lack of access to health care,” said Daniel Marfo, senior vice president and head of Zipline’s Africa business and operations. “We are honored to expand our relationship with our first customer to support additional sectors of government and create more impact together.”
With millions of miles of autonomous flights under their belt, Rwanda and Zipline are well positioned to get the world’s first nationwide drone delivery network off the ground and fully operational. Other countries in sub-Saharan Africa with similarly lenient drone regulations, like Ghana or Kenya, could be the next adopters.
But it may be awhile before a similar network takes shape in the U.S., despite Zipline having a presence in Utah and North Carolina. That’s because the Federal Aviation Administration has taken a conservative approach to drone regulations based around safety and privacy.
In particular, a lack of movement on rules that would permit flights beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the operator has stalled the industry. For commercial deliveries, the ability to fly BVLOS can greatly expand the delivery radius, which improves the value proposition for drones.
As it stands, drone delivery operators in the U.S. can conduct limited BVLOS flights under a waiver from the FAA. But that’s a temporary measure, and the path to getting delivery drones certified for production and commercial use is a long and arduous one.
There is some hope, however, for action from the FAA. In March, an FAA Advisory Rulemaking Committee centered on BVLOS regulations recommended that the agency implement a looser rule and approach operations on a case-by-case basis.
If — or when — the FAA follows through, then the potential would be there for the U.S. to build its own large-scale drone delivery service. But it will likely be years, or perhaps decades, before it’s able to achieve nationwide coverage.
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