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Drones in Rwanda 

click to enlarge A zipline drone launching at 65 mph in a third of a second.

Image by Roksenhorn, Creative Commons

A zipline drone launching at 65 mph in a third of a second.

"You now see much bigger and wealthier countries like the U.S. using Rwanda as a role model." A surprising statement given that Rwanda, a landlocked country in the heart of Africa with a land area twice that of Humboldt County, was the scene of a brutal massacre 29 years ago: 1 million dead in 100 days. Since then, improbably, it's become a model for developing countries, dramatically improving living conditions for its 12 million people. For instance, in what UNICEF called "one of the most significant achievements in human history," it cut its child mortality rate by half between 2000 and 2015.

In 2016, the U.S. drone company Zipline signed a deal with the Rwandan government to start a medical drone-delivery service from two distribution/launch sites, east and west. Between them, these sites can service the entire country, delivering whole blood, platelets and frozen plasma within about half an hour of an order being called in from a rural hospital or clinic. The company also operates medical delivery services in Ghana, Japan, Kenya and North Carolina. Their drones have made over 600,000 commercial deliveries, with 1 million on target by the end of this year.

Drone technology has come a long way recently. My little half-pound DJI Mini2, which can stay aloft for over 30 minutes filming in 4K/30 fps video, would have been unthinkable a few years ago. A Zipline drone (which made Time's "Best inventions of 2018" list) is an order of magnitude more capable: 11-foot wingspan, 44-pound weight with a 4-pound payload and 190-mile range. It's launched on a steel rail by a capacitor-powered catapult that accelerates it to its 65-mph cruising speed in 0.33 seconds. At the delivery site, the payload is dropped on a paper parachute. Recently, tech reporter Mark Rober posted a video about his visit to one of Rwanda's Zipline distribution sites ( Two statistics from Rober's video stood out for me: It takes just 45 seconds between receiving an order and speeding it on its way from a delivery center, and drones have reduced in-hospital maternal deaths in Rwanda by 88 percent.

Drones are set to change how we do things in the U.S., too. For instance, each year, some 4 billion doorstep deliveries are made in this country by gas-guzzling vehicles — not including Amazon. Imagine the difference that autonomous short-range electric drones could make. To this end, Zipline is currently working on their Platform 2 system that has a drone hovering at 330 feet while setting down its payload on a wire, silently and precisely, within 6 feet. (Isn't there something sweetly ironic about a medical delivery system that was perfected in Rwanda being used as the model for delivering hot pizzas in the U.S.?)

A couple more thoughts about Rwanda, which I visited four years ago when I led a two-week workshop for the country's umbrella microfinancing organization. Following the civil war in 1994, an authoritarian government has ruled Rwanda; Paul Kagame, whose photo is on every office wall, has been in control since 2000. Under his watch, the divisive ethnic terms "Hutu" and "Tutsi" are now taboo. ("We're all Rwandans now," I was told.) The fruits of this decidedly non-democratic approach to government have played out economically and socially. For instance, compared to the US, the Rwandan economy is growing four times faster, and the rate of violent crime is 15 times less.

Meanwhile, Rwanda's medical drones are flying up to 1,000 missions daily, and Zipline's drones are about to change how we shop and ship here in the U.S.

Barry Evans (he/him, is totally chuffed that his latest book, Humbook Two (in color!) is now in local bookstores.

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About The Author

Barry Evans

Barry Evans

Barry Evans lives in Old Town Eureka with his girlfriend (and wife) Louisa Rogers, several kayaks and bikes, and a stuffed gorilla named “Nameless.” A recovering civil engineer, he is the author of two McGraw-Hill popular science books and has taught science and history. His Field Notes anthologies are available... more

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