Pointing the way: how medical drones are saving lives in Africa


For an NHS hospital in Britain, it is a routine if traumatic event that staff are equipped to deal with day in, day out. But for a young woman in Rwanda, a sudden bleed after going into labour could easily have proved fatal.

There was no blood of the right group in store at the remote rural clinic looking after Alice Mutimiutugye when she needed her life-saving transfusion. Until recently the prospects for her would have been bleak.

But on this occasion, salvation arrived in the nick of time in an unlikely form: A small package floating on a paper parachute dropped from a 25lb, battery-powered drone. It had flown in from 50 miles away just half an hour after Alice’s doctors placed an order by text.

Ms Mutimiutugye, 23, from Nyange, west of the Rwandan capital, Kigali, is at the forefront of a technology-driven health revolution being pioneered in Africa that is now set to help patients in the developed West.

The unmanned aircraft is part of the world’s first national drone delivery network, started in Rwanda by the Silicon Valley company Zipline, which has made more than 950 drops of blood in life-or-death situations in the past year.

Instead of a desperate struggle to save Ms Mutimiutugye’s life, her condition stabilised and she soon went home with a healthy baby son.

“I used to see the Zipline drone fly and people gathering around to watch,” she said. “I would find it funny and think to myself ‘they must be mad’ until the same drone brought the blood that saved my life.”

Clear skies, no red tape

In the crowded skies of western countries, drone services have struggled to get off the ground. The reality has failed to match the PR hype of the occasional pre-Christmas trinket delivery by the likes of Amazon. Instead, drones are taking off in the far quieter skies of Africa.

In the next few months, Zipline will open a new service in Tanzania that within a year will be serving 1,000 clinics and 12m people with a new model of unmanned aircraft that will be the world’s fastest delivery drone.


In countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe, rangers use drones equipped with night-vision cameras to track poachers and guide in security teams to capture them. In Cameroon a local start-up is providing aerial mapping and imaging services to businesses and government. And farmers in Sudan are using them to sow seed.

Drone delivery pioneers have found African countries quick to embrace the new technology and realise that it is about far more than American Predator craft firing Hellfire missiles at terrorists.