Taking Flight

Africa’s skies might hold the key to tackling many of her medical challenges, writes James Francis.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, are buzzing across Rwanda. In just a few years, they have become responsible for 60 per cent of the country’s blood deliveries. In Tanzania, drones are being trialled to reach remote islands with blood and antivenom cargo. Zipline, which specialises in delivering medicine and such with drones, claims to have already served 18 million people across East Africa.

South Africa may soon be catching up. This May, the SA National Blood Service (SANBS) launched a drone programme that will transport blood supplies to remote areas. Dubbed #BloodWing, the proof of concept has two piloted drones that deliver blood to Sebokeng and Kopano hospitals.

“Our concept is globally unique in that we will provide two-way logistics,” says Dr Jonathan Louw, CEO of SANBS. “Patients can receive emergency ‘0 negative’ blood from one of our blood banks via drone. The same drone can then take that patient’s blood sample to the blood bank for comprehensive cross-matching and then safely and rapidly deliver compatible blood back to the patient.”

Such examples are not exclusive to the developing world — in May, a kidney was rushed via drone to a US hospital. But there is clearly plenty of activity in Africa, and not coincidentally. “It’s the result of tech companies needing to do two things: prove their concept —which is hard to do in heavily regulated Western countries — and seek financing, which social uses of drones help accomplish,” explains Johnny Miller, founder of AfricanDRONE. “Companies such as Zipline are performing a very valuable service, although their ambition, and every drone delivery company’s ambition, is to grow into delivering all sorts of goods, and thus become profitable.”

AfricanDRONE is an example of the other side of this movement. Miller describes it as a decentralised nonprofit organisation with pilots in 34 countries and hubs in Cape Town, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Billing its mission as “drones for good”, the nonprofit is composed of enthusiasts, business people, journalists and policymakers. It promotes drone-related understanding, education and development across the continent.

It’s also the partner of the Lake Victoria Challenge. This event, scheduled for November, focuses on how drones can improve the lives of the 30 million people who live around the lake’s shores.

 Overcoming challenges

The key challenge that drones overcome in Africa when it comes to delivering medical supplies is the lack of alternative methods to do so. The African Development Bank estimates that the continent must spend at least $130-billion a year on transport infrastructure, but falls short by half.

The World Bank specifically notes underinvestment in road infrastructure: sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where road density has declined in the past two decades.

Drones are a good match for Africa’s wide-open spaces and distinctly not first world problems. But it’s still early in their development: right now the focus remains on improving their reliability, speed and safety, supported by initiatives such as Malawi’s drone test corridor. This will hopefully open Africa’s lower skies to flying marvels, delivering lifesaving medicine to her furthest corners.

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