Starting next month, doctors and nurses in far-flung areas of Rwanda will be able to order blood and emergency medicine via a text message.
Drones, part of a new breed designed to save lives, will fly to a clinic using GPS coordinates but instead of landing, it will drop a small package by parachute.
Zipline, the company behind the project, says the aircraft will be capable of making up to 150 deliveries to 21 facilities in the African country, which has a scattered population.
"I think that one of the best ways we can work together with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to help this technology take off in the US is by operating in a country where we can basically serve a very clear need and get tens of thousands of hours of safe flight data," said Keller Rinaudo, the CEO of Zipline.
“Rwanda has a vision to become a technology hub for East Africa and ultimately the whole continent of Africa,” said William Hetzler, a founder of Zipline. “Projects like ours fit very well with that strategy.”
Despite major progress in the past few years, Rwanda - one of the world's poorest countries - has a long way to go to provide quality health care.
Building and running hospitals is expensive, so the government has incentive to be the first in the world to establish a commercial drone-delivery network.
The Zipline drones will use GPS receivers to navigate and communicate via the Rwandan cellular network. They will be able to fly in rough weather conditions, enduring winds up to 30 miles per hour.
When they reach the hospitals, they will not land but will drop small packages from very low altitudes. The supplies will fall to earth suspended by simple paper parachutes. The planes will then return to a home base, where they will be prepared for a new mission by swapping in a new battery and snapping in a new flight plan stored in a SIM card.
“This is the new face of the aerospace industry,” said Jay Gundlach, president of FlightHouse Engineering, an Oregon-based aviation consulting firm. “Established unmanned aircraft companies should learn from Zipline’s agile and innovative culture.”