This week’s FINN Flashback features Californian startup Zipline, which last year was pioneering a medical drone service in Rwanda which could provide a regulatory blueprint for the rest of the world.

Zipline is the world’s fastest commercial drone delivery service. Each day, some 150 drones drop urgent medicines and blood, by parachute, to 19 hospitals in the remote, rural countryside.

As Zipline’s Dan Czerwonka explains, this would not be possible without a partnership with the Rwandan government.

He said: “Rwanda was our first partner because we were looking for someone who had the same kinds of problems that we were trying to solve that our co-founders noticed in many places in Africa. We also needed someone who was willing to provide a regulatory framework that would allow us to fly nationwide, as well as someone who was willing to be a customer and partner with us to try this new service.

“Rwanda is a very forward-thinking and tech-savvy country in Africa – they’re a tech leader now and they were the first to jump on it. We work very closely with the Rwandan Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the Ministry of Health and the National Centre for Blood Transfusion. It’s very much a partnership.”

Ghana takes deliveries

As the 1.75 kilogram payload is loaded, Zipline is in touch with air traffic control to get permission to launch. The drones are tracked as they fly through the Rwandan skies – so far for more than a million hours without incident.

After dropping their cargo, the drones return to base where they’re reloaded for their next mission.

Other African countries are watching the solution with interest, and now Ghana is also set to benefit from the service where Zipline will be delivering 180 to 200 essential medicines and medical products.

Drones for good

Dan hopes more people will learn about the benefits drones can bring.

“About five years ago, when we started down this path, the word drone had a really negative connotation, even for myself. [If you saw a] drone in the newspaper, [it was often a] scare story – you’d think drones are going to bomb us or can spy on you.

“It’s really important for us to change that perception of the word drone, and to show people that drones can be used for very many good things, including delivering life-saving medical supplies just in time.”

Regulation is a partnership

The biggest barrier to this life-saving technology has been regulation, as the unmanned aircraft go beyond the line of sight. However, according to Zipline’s co-founder, Will Hetzler, this is changing too, thanks to the partnership with the Rwandan government.

Hetzler said, “The Rwandan Civil Aviation Authority has had a very progressive approach to the technology and has been able to pioneer an excellent performance-based drone regulatory model for the rest of the world.”